Anonymous Web Smears Get Smacked Down

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Anonymous posters on websites, beware: You’re not as anonymous as you might think you are.

That’s the tough lesson learned by people who posted unflattering comments about Tami and Kevin Sawyer on the KTVZ site after the TV station turned over their IP addresses in response to a subpoena from the Sawyers.

The Sawyers were high flyers during Bend’s real estate boom, but they’ve been brought down to earth by a barrage of legal troubles including lawsuits by investors and creditors and an investigation by the FBI.

Some of the Sawyers’ problems involve members of the Middleton family, who sued to have them removed as conservators of the estate of their father, the late Thomas Middleton Sr. In an effort to show the Middletons were motivated by malice, the Sawyers sent a subpoena to KTVZ last May demanding the addresses of people who anonymously made negative comments about them. KTVZ complied.

According to a Bulletin story on Wednesday, the Sawyers submitted to a judge “nearly two dozen pages of account activity from an IP address belonging to a Middleton family member, as well as dozens of anonymous posts that mention the Sawyers and their business dealings.”

KTVZ General Manager Eric Bradley said via e-mail that the station has a written policy on revealing the identities of anonymous posters that “is posted at the bottom of every page on our website for all to view.”

What’s actually posted at the bottom of every page, in small print, is a link to the policy, a rather long and legalistic document that explains what kind of information the host of the site, WorldNow, collects and how it uses it. But the policy doesn’t appear to be clear about cases like the Sawyer subpoena.

“Except as set forth within this Privacy Policy and this Web Site's Terms of Service and/or other published guidelines, we do not release personally identifiable information about this Web site's members and visitors without their permission,” the policy says.

Toward the bottom, it states: “We reserve the right to release any and all information contained within our access logs concerning any visitor or member when that visitor or member is in violation of our Terms of Service or other published guidelines, or partakes (or is reasonably suspected of partaking) in any illegal activity, even without a subpoena, warrant, or other court order, and to release such information in response to discovery requests, or in response to any circumstance which we, in our sole discretion, deem an emergency.”

However, it says nothing about releasing such information in connection with a civil suit.

KTVZ management theoretically could have fought the subpoena by invoking Oregon’s “shield law,” which protects news outlets from having to disclose anonymous sources. But Bradley said the station doesn’t consider anonymous Web posters in the same category as news sources. “While the laws protecting print, radio and TV are clearly defined, we feel the laws regarding Internet properties are still evolving,” he said.

I have to side with KTVZ on that point; anonymous news sources and anonymous Web posters are two different animals. Responsible news organizations don’t publish stories based on anonymous sources unless they know the source and are convinced he’s credible. They also try to check out the anonymous account with other sources, either anonymous or identified.

For the sake of the people who got caught up in this legal mess, I wish KTVZ’s privacy policy was a little clearer and more visible; probably not one in a hundred visitors bothers to click the link and read and digest the policy’s turgid prose. Still, it’s their responsibility to do that and they can’t blame the station if they don’t.

On the plus side, maybe this case will make people more cautious about anonymously spewing bile and slander on the Web. And that would be a good thing.

 


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