Anonymity is not a guarantee for online commenters

Federal prosecutors who had made a broad request for user information of commenters on the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Web site backed down a bit, but an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing four anonymous commenters on the newspaper Web site says it’s still an important, precedent-setting case.

(Maggie) McLetchie said that this case is an important one because it sets a dangerous precedent that would send a message that “if you go on the internet and you criticize the government, the government might start a criminal investigation about you, and we think that’s extremely problematic.”

Simon Owens, who interviewed McLetchie, notes the publicity about the Nevada case may make give pause to anonymous commenters on news stories because “the cloak of anonymity is not always everlasting.”

The newspaper fought a far-reaching information request, but is not fighting a request for the machine addresses, or IP addresses, of two commenters whose comements could be construed as threatening jurors or prosecutors.

“I’d hate to be the guy who refused to tell the feds Timothy McVeigh was buying fertilizer,” Journal-Review Editor Thomas Mitchell has said in explaining the newspaper’s decision. MeVeigh was responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building.

The ACLU, who contends its clients feel threatened by the government subpoenas received by the newspaper, is also trying to get the judge thrown off the case.