All posts by Hudson Sangree

UC Davis case shows how Web comment anonymity’s not absolute

Those anonymous comments you’ve been posting online might not be as anonymous as you think.

Last week, a Sacramento judge opened a small window of opportunity for a plaintiff in a lawsuit to discover the identities of individuals who had posted derogatory comments about him on a Davis blog.

The case mirrors others across the nation as courts struggle to balance anonymous speech online with the interests of litigants seeking information.

Many Internet user agreements warn bloggers that they aren’t guaranteed anonymity. And more and more, those who file lawsuits are using the legal system to unmask attackers.

Online anonymity is “a speed bump that’s relatively easy to clear for people with legitimate causes of action,” said Matt Zimmerman, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The San Francisco group is a leading advocate for anonymous speech on the Internet and is currently defending bloggers in Chicago against a subpoena by developers over comments against a controversial project.

A recent high-profile case in New York also highlighted the issue. Rosemary Port is suing Google after it revealed her as the anonymous blogger behind “Skanks in NYC,” a site attacking model Liskula Cohen. A judge ordered Google to disclose Port’s identity.

In the Sacramento case, a former police officer with the University of California, Davis, filed a lawsuit against the UC regents in February, claiming discrimination and breach of a settlement agreement in a prior lawsuit.

David Greenwald, who operates a blog called The People’s Vanguard of Davis, wrote about the legal dispute, and his readers weighed in with comments.

Some of those comments, posted anonymously and under a pseudonym, caught the attention of the former UC police officer, Calvin Chang, and his attorney, Anthony Luti.

They believed UC insiders had posted the comments and wanted to find out who they were. In July, Luti served a subpoena on Google, the Vanguard’s former host, demanding names, e-mail addresses and log-in information.

Google informed Greenwald, and his lawyer, Donald Mooney, filed a motion to quash the subpoena. He argued the information was protected by the First Amendment.

In a tentative ruling issued Tuesday in Sacramento Superior Court, Judge Shelleyanne Chang (no relation to the plaintiff) ruled mainly in Greenwald’s favor.

But the judge said the plaintiff could pay an independent third party to perform an Internet address trace to determine if those who posted comments were the people he thought they were. Only then could their information be revealed, she ruled.

“The court agrees that if the comments posted on the blog were authored by ‘managing agents’ of the university, they would constitute evidence relevant to the existing claims against the university, including breach of the settlement agreement,” the judge wrote.

Luti did not return a phone call seeking comment. Mooney said he and his client were unlikely to challenge the judge’s ruling, even though it was not entirely favorable.

“The lesson is there are no absolutes in life,” he said.

That’s pretty much the state of the law, too, said Zimmerman, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

In general, he said, courts have been protective of the right to anonymous speech. Political advocates have long used pen names or written anonymously, he said.

But there have always been exceptions to free-speech protections, and the area has grown more complex with the explosion of bloggers on the Internet.

Only a few high-level appellate courts have taken up the issue, he said, leaving rulings mostly in the hands of lower courts.

In California, a leading case was issued by a state appeals court in San Jose in early 2008. Called Krinsky v. Doe 6, it involved the head of a Florida company who sought the identities of people posting nasty remarks.

The court said the First Amendment generally protects anonymous speech, even though the Internet’s informality leads many “to substitute gossip for accurate reporting” and engage in “harsh and unbridled invective.”

But where plaintiffs can make a plausible case for defamation, the justices ruled, online anonymity may be breached. “When vigorous criticism descends into defamation,” they wrote, “constitutional protection is no longer available.”

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Fair Oaks teen devises prayer app for iPhone

Allen Wright, a junior at Del Campo High School, came up with his idea one day when feeling lonely. His iPhone application will, if it’s approved by Apple, let people reach out to God through cyberspace; others can see the prayers and offer support with a thumbs-up sign.

For eons, people have reached out to the Almighty with prayers and supplications. Soon they might be able to use their iPhones.

Fair Oaks teenager Allen Wright thought up an application for the Apple iPhone called “A Note to God.”

It lets iPhone users send prayers into cyberspace and allows them to read the prayers of others. The messages are stored in a database, and users remain anonymous.

Wright, 17, submitted his proposal to Medl Mobile, a Los Angeles startup that is developing apps for Apple to sell on its Web site. It selected “A Note to God” from 20,000 proposals.

“It’s so simple, it’s brilliant,” said Andrew Maltin, one of the co-founders of Medl Mobile. “We think it’s going to be extremely successful.”

Wright, a junior at Del Campo High School and regular churchgoer, said he came up with the idea while lying in bed and feeling lonesome.

“If you want to send a message, and you don’t have anybody to talk to, you could send a little prayer,” he said.

Apps, which iPhone users download from Apple, range from free to $5 or more. Users can play games, find restaurants or transform their iPhones into remote controls. There are hundreds of other applications.

Successful apps can generate thousands or even millions of dollars for developers. Any proceeds from “A Note to God” would be split between Apple, Medl and Wright.

If his app becomes a big seller, Wright said he’d like to use his share of the profits to go to college.

Maltin said his firm is still waiting for approval from Apple, but it could come any day now. The Silicon Valley giant didn’t respond to inquiries Monday.

Apple has rejected apps before for what it deemed inappropriate religious content, but Maltin said he didn’t think that would happen with “A Note to God.”

The application is not a joke, but a sincere way for people to reach out to the divine and to each other, he said.

Users can read each others’ prayers and be supportive by clicking on a “thumbs up” sign, he said. Otherwise, they can’t leave feedback or respond, he said.

Religious scholars contacted by The Bee on Monday welcomed the concept, although one offered a note of caution.

The Rev. James Murphy, vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, agreed the iPhone app “could be a high-tech form of prayer and an authentic way to express our desires to God.”

“There is in each one of us the need to communicate with the divine and to reach the transcendent,” he said.

But he cautioned would-be users to question their motivations.

“Prayer is direct to God, and God should be the primary motive,” he said. “If the motive is to be seen by others, be careful. There’s a sense in which prayer is private.”

He said whatever the form, prayers are heard. “God will hear it,” he said. “You don’t have to have his e-mail address.”

Darleen Pryds, an expert in medieval religious practices at the Franciscan School of Theology – part of the Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley – called the app “a brilliant use of technology” that brings to mind the 13th-century bells summoning people to pray.

“This application sounds to me like a call to prayer,” she said. “It creates a community of prayer, and by seeing other people’s prayers, it is a reminder to pray yourself.”

Wright, a lanky fair-haired teen, said he prays regularly and attends the New Life Community Church in Fair Oaks.

His favorite iPhone app is one that calls up quotes from Scripture.

In his suburban home on a quiet cul-de-sac, Wright demonstrated the working model of “A Note to God” on his iPhone.

He said the need to write a message focuses his prayer. The messages can be as long as you want, he said.

Wright’s father, Tod Wright, said he was badly hurt in a bulldozer accident two years ago and has struggled to raise his children as a single dad while being out of work.

He said his family has been through a lot of hardship in the past five years. Cancer, divorce and the death of a baby grandchild have taken their toll, he said.

The 44-year-old Wright said people need a way to reach out when they are grappling with heartache, trouble and tragedy. His son’s app might provide an outlet for their prayers.

“It’s going to do something for a lot of people to help them through,” he said. “Having a place you can send a message to your lost and loved ones – people you believe are your guardian angels.”

“All of us could use some place to reach out,” he said. “I think Allen’s is perfect.”

A working model of an iPhone application by a Fair Oaks teen.

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