In the June 2008 issue of the National Law Journal (out today), Tresa Baldas reported on the increasing number of law suits involving allegedly fake MySpace or Facebook pages — click here (subscription required) for the story. Among other cases, Baldas discusses the town of Cicero’s efforts to identify the creators of two MySpace pages containing false and allegedly defamatory statements about Cicero Town President Larry Dominick and claiming to be authored by him, which I posted about last week.
As I said in my post last week, the increasing number of disputes regarding false social networking pages raises questions about the problems with the anonymity of the internet that are equally interesting and difficult. And while your first reaction may be that courts should not be asked to resolve these disputes, the courts may be a necessary part of the process, as I discussed in the National Law Journal article:
Free speech issues aside, fake online profiles have pushed the age-old problem of schoolyard rumors into the courtroom, said Dave Donoghue, an attorney with DLA Piper who specializes in intellectual property litigation.
"The internet gives [a rumor] an air of credibility that it used to not have," Donoghue said. "It forces the schoolyard into the courtroom. And how the courts deal with youthful mistakes and transgressions is a very difficult issue."
Another difficult legal issue arising from fake postings, he said, is privacy rights. Specifically, when should Web sites turn over information about who is creating questionable profiles?
"They owe their users whatever protections they promised them, and so it’s important that the court system be used in those cases," Donoghue said, adding that Web sites can’t and shouldn’t turn over personal information based upon a private request.
Donoghue warned that those requests could be falsely created, "just like you can’t always trust that the creator of the page is who they claim to be."
Baldas discusses many of the most prominent social networking identity theft cases and does a good job of crystallizing the issues. But one other case with particular international impact is that of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. As explained in the New York Times’ Lede Blog (click here for the post), Bhutto Zardari took over as chief of the Pakistan Peoples Party after his mother, Benazir Bhutto, was killed late last year. Because Bhutto Zardari was "relatively unknown" many reporters turned to Facebook. While some found his profile, created using his first name spelled backwards for privacy reasons, many found and reported statements from one of two other false pages claiming to be Bhutto Zardari’s. The creator of one of the pages even anonymously posted about his fake Bhutto Zardari page on an internet bulletin board. Of course, the false pages were eventually taken down, but some copies of the newspapers and magazines that ran the false quotes and information still exist.