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Do you have a right to be anonymous on the Internet?

Do you have a right to be anonymous on the Internet?

Posting in Government

Should your Internet anonymity be revealed if you call someone a "psychotic, lying, whoring...skank" online? According to a new U.S. court decision, yes.

Should your Internet anonymity be pulled back if you call someone a "psychotic, lying, whoring...skank" online?

That's what Liskula Cohen, a 37-year-old fashion model, was called by an anonymous blogger.

To sue the blogger for defamation, Cohen needed the blogger's identity. So she demanded it, and a U.S. court has ruled that Google must hand that identity over.

“I’m a human being. I bleed. I have feelings. When I saw that blog, it was awful. All I can say for this person is, I really truly hope that they have more in their life than this," Liskula said in the New York Post.

To be sure, the anonymous nature afforded to the Internet allows its users to stir the pot ("troll") with off-color language and opinions.

And while free speech is legal in this country, no one can argue that if you legally defame someone online, you're legally liable.

But should Google (or any other provider) be legally required to give up your identity...just to be sued?

Defamation is defined as a claim, stated or implied to be factual, that gives an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image.

The case would probably hinge on whether it can be proved that the blogger acted maliciously and spread lies about the model -- rather than simply opined about her character.

After all, it's protected free speech to say that you believe someone is disingenuous or otherwise intolerable. It's another thing to imply incorrectly that the person sleeps around, especially if you knew it wasn't true.

(If you're interested, Richard Koman at SmartPlanet sister site ZDNet explains the role of legal precedent in the case.)

But the real debate is over whether Google should be forced to reveal the blogger's identity. After all, if the blogger wins the case, he or she remains outed. There's no going back.

Is that really fair?

Is it right to establish such a precedent, when in a more oppressive nation such as China, Iran or North Korea, full disclosure silences the ability to dissent?

Do we have a right to be anonymous on the Internet?

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure