A commenter here pointed to some remarks by a user at Birther Report, who comments anonymously under the name ★FALCON★, threating legal action against anyone who should start guessing at his real name online:
I’ve never told anyone my name. …
It’s helpful to remember that I have a family of attorneys and all of their names and addresses. Lawsuits could ensue should they keep trying to figure out my identity and coming up wrong.
The statement seems farcical. If one guesses correctly, then the statement is true and hardly seems grounds for a lawsuit. If one guesses wrongly then the name given is somebody else, giving ★FALCON★ no grounds to sue either. The other obvious problem is that in order to sue, ★FALCON★ would have to reveal the identity that he so carefully hides. That led me to ask whether it would be possible for ★FALCON★ to sue someone anonymously, as “John Doe.”
There are special occasions when parties to a lawsuit can remain out of the public record, when justice requires it. I don’t think that this situation fits. On the other hand, a lawsuit hypothetically filed against ★FALCON★ for defamation could force disclosure of his identity. Here’s a sample statement from him that some might consider defamatory:
Further, anyone relying in the reliability of Dr. Crunt, Faggy and R.C. are sorely mistaken. These dumbshits can’t figure out if they’re male or female, let alone discern my identity.
I am confident that better examples could be found if one took the time. Any number of BR commenters have, for example, called me a Communist (I am not now, nor have I ever been …). Armed with a defaming statement, can one find out the identity of an anonymous blogger? While I am not a legal expert, the answer appears to be yes. Golfer Phil Mickelson won a legal battle against Yahoo and cable company Videotron to force them to name a person who defamed Mickelson on a Yahoo forum. ABC News reports that a Texas couple won $13.78 million in damages from anonymous posters at the popular Topix local forums web site after Topix was forced to disclose the IP addresses.1
The defamation in those cases was much more serious and specific (extramarital affairs, murder, child abuse) and the damages more clear cut than the mental defect alleged by ★FALCON★, but it bears remembering that anonymous commenting is not always anonymous and juries are all over the map when I comes to awarding damages. Forum owners (IANAL) like me who are merely conduits for user comments are immune from libel suits. I’m only responsible for what I say.
I think that if I ever received a subpoena for the IP addresses of commenters here, I would to resist it to the extent the law and rules of the court allow. But that’s as far as I would go.
[Update: We eventually did figure out Falcon’s real name with certainty. It wasn’t through an IP address, but just because he talks too much for someone who doesn’t want his identity found.]
1Internet users seriously trying to stay anonymous might try to use a non-US proxy server to obscure their location.