Unmasking "Anon12345": Applying an Appropriate Standard When Private Citizens Seek the Identity of Anonymous Internet Defamation Defendant
Erik P. Lewis | 2009 U. Ill. L. Rev. 947
To any individual who wishes to make defamatory statements, the Internet provides not only a forum and an audience, but also a cloak of anonymity. It can be difficult for a plaintiff in an Internet defamation case to obtain redress from an anonymous defendant. The obstacles to relief that exist under current law are particularly troubling when the vic-tims of defamation are private individuals, because defamation has the potential to be most harmful to them. When defamation against public figures or business associations is posted online and memorialized in an Internet cache, it can instantly be lost in long lists of search results, but an Internet search for a name that is not well-known or common will like-ly return a short list of results so that even one negative comment stands out.
After providing background information about Internet defamation claims and First Amendment protections in the context of defamatory speech, the author presents three standards that courts have used to determine when it is appropriate to unmask an anonymous Internet defamation defendant. Next, the author analyzes the reasoning behind the Communications Decency Act, which shields Internet service providers from liability as publishers or speakers of a third party’s defamatory statement and generally leaves victims of Internet defamation with no cause of action against anyone but the individual poster. The author also examines the manner in which each approach to unmasking anonymous Internet defamation defendants strikes a balance between the First Amendment’s protection of anonymous speech and laws that prohibit defamation. The author then recommends that the standards for unmasking anonymous Internet defendants should be tiered according to whether the plaintiff is a public figure, a corporate entity, or a private individual.