One presumably regular reader of BlogaBarbara – the online journal of Santa Barbara happenings kept by the pseudonymous Sara De La Guerra – would have checked the site yesterday and found a departure from the frequent musings on the internal happenings at the Santa Barbara News-Press: a warning directed specifically at himself or herself that Ampersand Publishing wants to know their name.
This person anonymously posted a January 27th comment on BlogaBarbara that read, in part, as follows: I believe a bombshell of conduct by a former employee is about to be exposed. It will forever change the way people jump in to protect someone they really do not know on a personal level. The one’s who came to the defense of the ex-employee will now be tainted with a stain that can never be erased.
Sara De La Guerra’s March 6 post, “Subpoena to Anonymous Made by Ampersand,” explained she understood that Ampersand, which publishes the Santa Barbara News-Press, had subpoenaed Google – which owns Blogger, the service that hosts BlogaBarbara – to yield the Internet Protocol (IP) address of the computer from which that comment was posted. Such information could link the comment with a specific computer, and, thus, the person claiming to have inside information as well.
De La Guerra politely suggested that this anonymous commenter may want to seek the help of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF), an organization that protects free speech online. EFF previously aided De La Guerra by submitting a letter to Judge William Schmidt, who presided over the January News-Press hearing with the National Labor Relations Board, imploring him not to halt a subpoena from revealing the IP address of the BlogaBarbara author herself. Schmidt declared the subpoena moot.
De La Guerra – who agreed to an interview with the Independent, through email, of course – counts that victory as a crucial one, as she claims that she could not write the blog freely if her readers knew her identity. “My readers would certainly relate to my posts differently and it would create an entirely different dynamic,” De La Guerra said. She likened her situation to larger free speech issues currently in the media. “It’s one of the great things about America that seem to be under fire these days,” she said. “The recent news related to the former Vice-Presidential aide and a reporter’s right to protect their source is a perfect example of how we as a society do not know how to manage what we do not understand.”
Corynne McSherry, an EFF staff attorney who describes the organization as “the ACLU of the internet,” said standard procedure of the EFF in these kinds of cases is to demand the subpoenaing party to present just cause for the action in order to ensure that people aren’t being exposed for petty reasons. “It’s important to understand we’re not saying that under no circumstances should you not be able to find out someone’s identity if that person has genuinely defamed you: in a way that people would actually believe them,” McSherry said. “If that’s the case, then you may have a basis for legitimate claim to sue them in a court of law.”
However, she also said that EFF felt this was not the case with Ampersand’s move to reveal Sara De La Guerra’s true name. “As I understand, what happened with that subpoena was kind of wacky,” she explained. “They had sought information in connection with the hearing, but: if they had needed the ID of the blogger, they would have asked for it sooner than five days before the hearing,” McSherry said. “Even aside from the timing issue, it seemed strange that they would seek this information in respect to a comment [that appeared] on the blog for only a few hours. That seemed like a stretch: It also seemed a little ironic that a newspaper was trying to pierce anonymity, given how important it is to the journalistic profession.”
De La Guerra claimed her anonymity was preventing her from being on the receiving end of a lawsuit from News-Press owner Wendy McCaw or Ampersand Publishing. “They haven’t showed that they are tolerant of people with differing opinions to their own,” De La Guerra said. “This is truly unfortunate as BlogaBarbara has become known as a place where diverse opinions can be voiced. I, in fact, would welcome any of the News-Press management making a guest appearance on BlogaBarbara.”
McSherry echoed these sentiments, noting her own confusion about why lawsuits seem to be such a ready response to controversial comments published online. “We’re seeing a lot of these kinds of cases,” McSherry said. “It’s so easy to publish something now and have it there world for the world that if you’re the person being spoken about: that makes [that person] anxious,” she said. “But the flipside is also true. It’s so easy to respond online – and it’s a much more intelligent way to respond,” she said.
On the issue of free speech, De La Guerra also defended her right to edit comments that appear on her blog, explaining that doing so allows her to maintain dignified conversation. “There are at least one or two [comments] a day that I delete for using profanity, trying to identify an anonymous commenter or for being over-the-top mean towards someone,” De La Guerra said. “I have chosen not to publish comments like this from both sides of this issue on a fairly equal basis.”
To a seasoned veteran like De La Guerra, blogging is a potentially explosive medium. “I am a strong believer in free speech but also believe that the cloak of anonymity can cause many people to write things that they might not admit to saying to their mother at the dinner table. Many comments are also off topic and do nothing to further the conversation. Blogs can easily get out of hand when comments degenerate – I’ve seen it happen at BlogaBarbara and even at your own blog at The Independent.”
McSherry said she did not know enough about this second subpoena to say if EFF would become involved. De La Guerra said that as of press time she had not received a response to her “warning” post from the anonymous commenter.
A representative from Google said that he could not verify whether his company had received the subpoena, but did say that he could not comment on an on-going legal proceedings.
Agnes Huff, McCaw’s spokesperson, said she could not yet comment at press time. A representative with Barry Cappello’s law office also was looking into the matter, but was not able to confirm the subpoena by press time.