Much of the allure of the Internet is its relative anonymity, as users can interact with each other without revealing their personal information. The NSA spying scandal as well as other big data collection reports have demonstrated, of course, that the net is not as anonymous as many users would like to believe. Still, internet commenters can find comfort in the fact that their online speech cannot be linked with their true identity.
A new ruling by a federal judge in Louisiana claims that anonymity on the web might not be an inherent right. US Magistrate Judge Joseph Wilkinson decided on Tuesday that attorney Edward Castaing could legally subpoena NOLA.com to provide him with the names, addresses and phone numbers of two otherwise anonymous commenters on the site.
The case in which Castaing is involved regards the Danziger Bridge shootings that took place in New Orleans during the days following Hurricane Katrina. Five police officers were convicted with shooting civilians during the incident.
Castaing’s client, former New Orleans Affordable Homeownership executive director Stacey Jackson, was accused of misusing federal funds for personal benefit, theft and bribery amidst the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Castaing believes his client may have been charged due to comments on the site posted anonymously by law enforcement officials, an act which would constitute prosecutorial misconduct. Castaing claims that two commenters on NOLA.com, the online equivalent of print publication the New Orleans Times-Picayune, made statements that “pressured suspects to cooperate with prosecutors,” according to RT.
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Former US Attorney Jim Letten’s office had already admitted to posting slanderous comments on the site, which led both Letten to resign and a judge to reopen a trial for the convicted police officers. Several federal officials, including former Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone and former First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jann Mann, were found to have been using the site to post anonymous comments.
One commenter, using the name “jammer1954,” wrote the following on the article which Castaing hopes to subpoena: “Mark my words. The canaries are going to start singing, and Car 54 is going up in smoke. Stacey Jackson is going to rat out every one, every body, and every thing to make the best deal for herself – after all she did this as chief of NOAH so her behavior isn’t going to change.”
NOLA.com has claimed that it takes the privacy of its users seriously and that it would consider how to respond once it receives the subpoena from Castaing. Although the judges presiding over the case recognized how the subpoena would violate individual privacy, they claimed that it also “might lead to the conclusion that there was a pattern, policy or practice of pre-indictment prosecutorial misconduct in the accusatory process material to Jackson’s defenses alleging violations of her due process rights.”