The case for anonymous lawsuits begins with the unfortunate story of Lani (a nickname) as told by the New York Times Magazine. In 2009, Lani was alerted to nude photos of herself on a Web site called Private Voyeur — along with her name, her workplace, and the city she lives in. The post, titled “Jap Slut,” was put up under an anonymous handle. Although Lani's ex-boyfriend admitted distributing these pictures to his friends, he did not know who put them on the web, so police told Lani they could not help her. And while Private Voyeur took the post down, a few months later it was up again.
Emily Bazelon at the Times' Magazine points to a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit case involving two young women who sued the "Girls Gone Wild" franchise and founder Joe Francis for emotional distress because they’d been filmed flashing their breasts or having sex when they were too young to legally consent. The 11th circuit granted the plaintiffs’ request to sue anonymously, nothing that another woman who sued Girls Gone Wild under her own name has been permanently tagged by name as a “breast-flasher” on the popular Internet Movie Database website.
If Lani pursues the case under defamation or invasion of privacy, she could win a court order revealing the name of the internet troll who posted the pictures, and then sue him for damages. But such a lawsuit would publicize these images outside of the website "Private Voyeur," and link Lani's name to the pictures permanently. Women in Lani's position have the choice of leaving their exposure at the public level it is, or fighting against that exposure and risking even greater exposure in the process.
Allowing more women like Lani to proceed anonymously might indicate to the online community that comments can be traced, and encourage less offensive discourse. However, while cases such as those highlighted in the Times Magazine piece draw sympathy for a woman's ability to anonymously sue anonymous commentators, no doubt backlash against this legal theory will begin quickly. People relish their anonymity and freedom online, and will fight zealously to preserve it -- even at the expense of Lani and women like her.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.