Woman sues Google over blogger's comments


Globe and Mail Update

January 7, 2009 at 8:55 PM EST

A Canadian woman has launched a lawsuit against Google Inc., demanding that the company reveal the identity of the people she says posted offensive statements about her on a blog hosted by the U.S. technology titan.

Liskula Cohen, a 36-year-old fashion model who appeared on the covers of the Australian Vogue and W magazines in the early 1990s, wants Google to hand over the name of the anonymous blogger who posted a series of unflattering photos and comments about her using the company's Blogger publishing service.

The lawsuit has turned Ms. Cohen into an instant Internet celebrity as details of her ordeal began to emerge this week. However, legal experts in the United States say she may have a difficult time making her case.

Her complaint relates to a series of posts made in August, 2008 on the “Skanks in NYC” blog.

Ms. Cohen could not be reached for comment but said “the statements and suggestions made on the blog are malicious and untrue,” according to a section of an affidavit published by The New York Post.

“Our laws protect speech and anonymous speech, however it doesn't protect speech that defames people,” Ms. Cohen's New York-based lawyer Steven Wagner told The Globe and Mail.

“The purpose of the lawsuit against Google is only to unmask the people who have defamed Liskula Cohen.”

Google declined to comment on the lawsuit directly, but issued a brief statement saying the company sympathizes with anyone who may be the victim of cyber bullying.

“We also take great care to respect privacy concerns and will only provide information about a user in response to a subpoena or other court order,” Google said in the statement. “If content is found by a court to be defamatory, we will of course remove it immediately.”

Under U.S. federal law, Google is defined only as the re-publisher of the blog posts, not their owner, and therefore can not be held liable for defamatory messages posted on Blogger.

“Google is not responsible for what people write on its Blogger service,” said Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who focuses on civil liberties, free speech and privacy law.

“A suit against Google will not succeed because Google is given immunity by federal law,” he said.

In order for a defamation suit against the blogger to be successful, Ms. Cohen would need to prove that the comments made on the blog were factually false statements, rather than someone's opinion of her, Mr. Opsahl said.

“I'm at a loss to understand what the factual statement is behind calling someone a skank,” he said. “I think that the average reader looking at it would understand it to be an expression of someone's -- albeit low -- opinion of the model.”

According to Blogger's terms of service, Google will not remove allegedly defamatory material from its U.S. sites until “the material has been found to be defamatory by a court, as evidenced by a court order.”

The company does, however, respond to subpoenas when it receives them.

Still, even if Google were to be ordered by a judge to reveal the identity of the person who signed up for the “Skanks in NYC” account, it might not be able to provide Ms. Cohen with the user's identity. Because the site requires only a valid e-mail address to register, Google may be unable to locate the individual if they signed up using phony personal information.

Google purchased Blogger's parent company Pyra Labs for an undisclosed amount in 2003.


Our commentary in the Globe and Mail

Ottawa Mens Centre.com, from Ottawa, Canada wrote: Google were advised that the post was defamatory, they failed to remove it upon request and that caused the victim more damages. Google make next to no effort to confirm an identity and odds are they knew and know that the vast majority of their registered email addresses are phony. Lets face it, if you allege that the rich and powerful are corrupt and that just happens to be correct, then you would have good reasons to use a fake address. Firstly, you have a public duty to inform the rest of the world of their abuse of power, secondly, why should you be a victim for performing a civic duty?

Canada's Rich and Powerful can silence or have removed any comment they don't like simply by having their lawyers send a threatening letter even to well known newspapers.

If you read Canada's major newspapers, you will notice that increasingly, the public's ability to comment is being eroded on a daily basis. Just look at the number of stories in national newspapers that have at the bottom "comments are closed to this story". It just happens very rapidly and no doubt on staff lawyers keep lowering the bar of what comment should be removed or adding yet another string of phrases to their automatic filters. www.OttawaMensCentre.com