The XX Factor

Unmasking Internet Flamers

The former model* Carla Franklin is the latest in a growing parade of people who are seeking from Google data that could help uncover the identities of commenters who are trashing them online, according to the New York Daily News . (UPDATE: In October, the Daily News reported that “a Manhattan judge has ordered Google to identify the cyberbully who trashed” Franklin on YouTube. “We were trying to get IP address information,” Franklin says. Here’s more from her .)

This tactic doesn’t work if you’re trying to get monetary damages from Google. The law doesn’t hold the search company responsible for the trash people write on the Web, as it shouldn’t. But actions like this one, which ask a court to compel a company like Google to turn over data that could reveal a commenter’s identity,* have a different goal. According to the Daily News , Franklin wants to find out who called her a “whore” on YouTube and posted unauthorized clips from one of her movies. Specifically, she’s trying to unmask the real people behind the handles “JoeBloom08,” JimmyJean008,” and “greyspector09.” For that, you need a subpoena or a court order.

The problem with bringing a legal action like this one, of course, is that it gives a lot more publicity to what JoeBloom08 et al had to say about Franklin. The headline in the New York Daily News : ” Brainy ex-model Carla Franklin suing Google to expose cyberbully who called her ‘whore’ on YouTube .” Surely more people will read that than read the original doofus comments. Such is the price Franklin is paying for having a thin skin about her reputation in the Internet era.That’s, of course, what the flamers count on: far easier, and safer, to ignore them.

But this is why Franklin may be taking one for the team here. In the debate over Internet free speech, commenters who go around anonymously trashing people are the low-life trolls whose misconduct could bring down bad restrictive rules on everyone else. Maybe a few successful unmaskings will help deter them, as hard as such restraint is to imagine in our current Web culture. If people want to post smears, let them do it knowing that they could be outed. If they still want to go ahead, hey, our libel laws are lenient enough to pretty much give them the go-ahead, especialy when a public figure is involved. That’s a good thing for free speech, all around. But the right to trash someone else online while remaining anonymous? Hard to see the hugely valuable free-speech right in that, at least for me.

Correction, Jan. 13, 2011 : This post originally called Franklin a model. She is a former model.

Clarification, Jan. 13, 2011 : The post originally did not fully explain the goals of the legal action.