On the Net, they may find out you're a dog

Attorney Eric J. Sinrod says a move is afoot to identify the authors of anonymously posted content when they violate the law.

3 min read
When the Internet was becoming a widely accessed medium for communication a decade or so ago, the potentially anonymous nature of cyberspace was highlighted by a famous cartoon depicting a dog surfing the Net.

The caption read, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." Those days may be coming to an end because the era of assured cyber anonymity is about to become a thing of the past.

Google closed its purchase of YouTube for more than $1 billion last November. The online video start-up displays all sorts of videos--uploaded by its users--for free, public viewing. Indeed, as I write this column, I am multitasking and watching videos of Bob Marley, Eric Clapton, Grateful Dead and Sinead O'Connor on YouTube. But there has been no small amount of controversy about copyrighted videos showing up on the popular site. (On Tuesday, Viacom sued YouTube and parent company Google over what it alleged was "massive intentional copyright infringement" and seeking more than $1 billion in damages.)

For example, a film studio called Magnolia Pictures--owned by technology/media entrepreneur Mark Cuban--sought relief from a federal court in Dallas to force Google to identify certain people who are alleged to have anonymously placed copyrighted videos on YouTube.

Google very well may provide notice directly to the persons who posted the videos, so that if they want to protect their own anonymity, they can file motions to quash the subpoena. If such motions are not filed, Google then probably would comply with the subpoenas and provide the requested identities.

If such motions are filed, then the court would be called upon to determine whether the anonymous posters should have their real-life identities unmasked. The key inquiry would be whether the posters' right to communicate and act anonymously on the Internet is outweighed by the damage they allegedly caused and the need to uncover who they are so that further damage would not be caused and prior damage can be redressed.

In another context, it has been asserted that a high-level member of Wikipedia has used his anonymity to falsely claim that he is a professor of religion, supposedly to heighten the credibility of his contributions to the free Internet encyclopedia.

While the founder of Wikipedia reportedly has stated that people still will be able to contribute anonymously, they only should be entitled to cite professional expertise in a subject if such credentials have been verified. Of course, such verification ultimately could lead to identity revelation.

This potentially could stifle what has been behind Wikipedia's phenomenal growth--as anonymity has been credited for the millions of freely submitted articles and the focus on content rather than on the authors of the content.

Let's face it: Anonymously posted content can violate the law, such as infringing on copyrighted works, and it can be false. When that happens, aggrieved parties often will seek to put a stop to the content and will seek recompense. To do so, they will seek the identities of the posters.

So beware. If you bark on the Internet, people might find out that you, in fact, are a dog!