Can you be sued for anonymous comments on the Internet?

can you be sued for anonymous comments on the internet trollAt some point or another, everyone on the Internet has had to deal with an annoying anonymous commenter spewing some kind of invective in their direction. It’s a simple fact of online life, right…? Well, maybe not for much longer. A lawsuit in Idaho sees a politician suing an anonymous commenter and asking for $10,000 in damages.

The politician in question is Tina Jacobson, chair of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, who has launched a lawsuit against a commenter who identified themselves as “Almost Innocent Bystander” following a couple of comments made on a February 14, 2012, blogpost on the website for the Idaho Spokesman-Review newspaper. The comments thread accompanying a post which featured a photograph of Jacobson alongside other local Republican figures, was disrupted by Almost Innocent Bystander’s seemingly-out-of-nowhere comment that $10,000 allegedly missing from the Central Committee’s funds could be found “stuffed inside Tina’s blouse,” with a second comment by the user going on to outright accuse her of embezzlement.

The offending comments – and, indeed, the entire post that spawned them – were quickly deleted by the paper, with Almost Innocent Bystander banned from the site as a result (He/She emailed the newspaper to renounce the earlier comments, writing that they “apologize for and retract my derogatory and unsubstantiated commentary regarding Tina Jacobson”), but that wasn’t enough of a response for Jacobson or her attorney, Matthew Andersen.”In Idaho, being called a thief is a per se libelous statement,” Andersen told Businessweek, underlining the point by adding “She had been called a thief.”

There’s just one problem with this lawsuit: Neither Jacobson nor Andersen knows what Almost Innocent Bystander actually is. An earlier appeal to the Spokesman-Review to release the commenter’s name and details was met with a firm refusal, which has brought us to the current state of the lawsuit: A disputed subpoena that, if allowed, would force the paper to release the details of the commenter alongside two other anonymous commenters, “Phaedrus” and “OutofStatertater,” who challenged the accusations in the original, deleted, thread.

A decision about whether or not the subpoena will be allowed is expected from District Judge John Luster in a matter of days, but if it is allowed, it’ll be interesting to see what the legal and digital-social ramifications will be: Will we see more lawsuits against online trolls, secure in the knowledge that fake names aren’t enough to protect users from prosecution? And if so, will that lead to a drop in the amount of harrassment and trolling online – or just make the trolls sneakier and harder to track?