Cyber harassers: You can hide, but you can’t run

If you think using a false identity will allow you to slander or harass people online, think again. Anonymity will not save you.

You gotta love the InterWebs. You can get away with saying practically anything about anybody-- and if you hide behind a fake identity, nobody will ever be able to tell it’s you. Right?

Well, no. You can’t just say slander or harass someone without repercussions. If what you say or do would break a law in physical space, it will also break laws in cyber space. And I don’t care how anonymous you think you are, your identity is only a subpoena away.

William Lawrence Cassidy found this out the hard way after he posted some 8,000 nasty, threatening, and disturbing tweets directed at one woman: Alyce Zeoli, a Buddhist leader in Maryland.

Cassidy, who also went by a variety of aliases including Tulku Urgyan Tenpa Rinpoche and Marshal Jim Duncan, probably thought he was being clever by posting the tweets via fake names. He wasn’t. He's now cooling his heels in a Maryland jail cell, awaiting trial for cyber harassment. 

Per the New York Times:

… in response to a subpoena, [Twitter] revealed the Internet protocol address of the computer used to post the messages. The authorities found Mr. Cassidy at home in a small Southern California town called Lucerne Valley. Similar rants were posted on blogs that law enforcement authorities say they traced to him.

I had a tiny taste of something similar myself recently, after I made a joke about the Tea Party in a blog post. I said that before I friended anyone on Facebook I always make sure they’re not ax murderers or Tea Party members. After this lone comment prompted a handful of “news” stories on right-wing sites, I tweeted out a formal apology – to ax murderers.

You’d think I’d bitch slapped Sarah Palin while strangling a puppy. I cannot repeat here most of the nasty NSFW things these people said about me in blog comments and on Twitter.

But the worst one was the pseudonymous a**clown who made a “joke” by tweeting about my alleged fondness for kiddie porn. I informed him that he was flirting with a defamation suit, but he didn’t care – he seemed to think he was immune. 

I’m not sure what these people thought they’d achieve by this campaign, but I think they proved my point about why I wouldn’t want to friend them.

Some free speech advocates argue that Twitter is a public forum where all voices should be heard. In Cassidy’s case, his alleged harassment of Zeoli seems to go well beyond free speech and into threats against her physical safety.  

In my case, well, I’m a big fan of the First Amendment – I use it every day -- but I don’t think it gives you a license to slander or knowingly spread falsehoods. And I’m not alone.

“There is a whole litany of things that are not protected by the First Amendment, including illegal activity and copyright violations,” notes Bennet Kelly, a Los Angeles attorney specializing in cyber law who’s also an award-winning blogger for the Huffington Post.

Kelley often represents people who’ve been harassed or stalked online, typically by people posting anonymously or via a fake identity.

“These people think they’re immune, that they can hide their identity and get away with anything,” says Kelley. “But the victims usually have a pretty good idea of who these people are, and if not, we can investigate and find out.”

The simplest route: Take the account information and/or IP addresses used by the harasser, and demand their real identity and contact info from their service providers.

Once Kelley approaches the harassers, they usually take the offending material down to avoid further legal consequences.

Unfortunately, cyber harassment doesn’t get the attention it deserves, says Kelley. “People get all upset about cookies invading their privacy,” he says. “When’s the last time someone committed suicide over a cookie?”

TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan hasn’t sued anybody yet, but there’s still time. Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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