Thankfully, under the Communications Decency Act Web sites can’t be held responsible for comments left on their pages. But can Web sites be forced to divulge their commenters’ IP addresses? Even if anonymous commenters use a site as a soapbox to harrass someone and call them an (actual quote) “cantakerous obnoxious dishonest new money pig self proclaimed god?” No way, says a mostly sensible Oregon court.
The case comes out of a blog post at the Portland Mercury about a local politician named Sho Dozono. A commenter identified only as “Ronald” wrote an angry rant in the comments:
Now that Sho Dozano has severed all business ties with Terry Beard (cantakerous obnoxious dishonest new money pig self proclaimed god) of Beard Frame Shops and of TheBigBidet.com, oops, I mean Thebigday.com, I will vote for him. Many business leaders in Portland feel the same way. He really did himself a serious diservice when he decided to trust someone like Terry Beard.
“Ronald” left a similar comment at another local paper. Beard demanded the two papers give him Ronald’s IP address, which could be used to track down which computer Ronald used to post the comments, and presumably, Ronald’s identity. The papers refused.
In court, Judge James E. Redman sided with the two papers. Sort of. The papers don’t have to give Beard anything, he rules, but with the caveat:
if the comment had been totally unrelated to the blog post, then the argument could be made that the Portland Mercury did not receive it in the ‘course of gathering, receiving, or processing information for any medium of communication to the public.’
It’s a weird ruling: in the original post where “Ronald” slams Beard, Beard wasn’t mentioned by the reporter at all.
To us, the real issue isn’t anonymous commenters as journalistic sources, it’s the chilling effect on the blogosphere’s give-and-take if Web sites can be compelled to give up their commenters’ info, even when their commenters are jerks. But while this new ruling in Oregon is limited, the judge did side with the Internet content publishers. A similar case in Montana came to much the same conclusion last month.
Seems like the law is trying to catch up with technology — we expect more cases like this in the future until the case law is settled. But at least the wind is blowing in the right direction.