Is calling someone a "ho" on a blog worthy of the anonymity afforded to the writings of the American Founding Fathers 200 years ago?
That's the basis of a landmark Internet privacy debate sparked this week in connection with a looming civil suit against Web giant Google Inc. The company is facing a potential $15-million (U.S.) lawsuit by a once-anonymous blogger, Rosemary Port, after it complied with a New York court order last week and released her name.
The order came after a Canadian model, Liskula Cohen, won her own battle against Google in connection with what she argued were defamatory statements made last year on a blog called "Skanks in NYC."
In it, Ms. Cohen, a model whose credits include Vogue and Flare, was described as "skanky," "whoring," and a "ho," according to court documents.
The blog was hosted by a company owned by Google, and was taken down in March.
Ms. Cohen fought to earn the release of the blogger's name. A judge ruled in her favour earlier this month, and soon afterward Google outed Ms. Port.
Since then, the 29-year-old has seen accounts of her relationship with Ms. Cohen hit New York City's gossip pages. The New York Post said the unemployed Ms. Port became angry when she felt Ms. Cohen started what the paper called a "trash-talk war" by badmouthing Ms. Port to her boyfriend, identified as Daniel Dimin.
The story has spread across other blogs, including one that asked for people to vote in a "skank-off" over which of the "lovely litigious ladies" - Ms. Cohen or Ms. Port - was "hotter."
In a story published Sunday, Ms. Port broke her silence on the debacle and fired back, telling the New York Daily News she planned on suing Google for $15-million for failing to protect her identity.
Her high-profile attorney Salvatore Strazzullo framed it as a fundamental battle over the right to privacy on the Internet, telling the paper Google "breached its fiduciary duty to protect her expectation of anonymity."
The public threats - a Google spokesman said last night he didn't believe the lawsuit has been filed - have left experts debating whether Ms. Port is picking the right battle.
"Based on what I've seen, [Ms. Port's civil prospects are]slim to none," said Matt Zimmerman, a senior staff attorney for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which fights for free speech and privacy online.
"I don't think they're going to get anywhere."
Mr. Strazzullo's argument is that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution affords the right to anonymous speech, and noted the Federalist Papers were penned anonymously. The Federalist Papers were said to have been written by some of the Founding Fathers, urging New York voters about 220 years ago to ratify the Constitution.
"Shouldn't that right extend to the new public square of the Internet?" Mr. Strazzullo told the Daily News.
Mr. Zimmerman said that's a good argument - one that should have been made in an appeal of the trial court's decision, which he suspects would have been overturned. To instead sue Google for obeying a judge is "a tough argument to make," he said.
"We [at the EFF]think the right to speak anonymously should be applied in the online world. ... I'm sympathetic to the blogger, who I think shouldn't have had the information disclosed, but they're pointing at the wrong [group]here. You can't put this on Google's shoulders," Mr. Zimmerman said. "Google, just like any other entity, has an obligation to comply with the courts."
Google - which originally fought Ms. Cohen's request on Ms. Port's behalf - said last night it will "comply with valid legal processes" and scrutinizes each court order before acting. In 2006, the company successfully fought off an attempt by the U.S. government to access its search query records.
"In fact, we have a history of being an advocate for user privacy," spokesman Andrew Pederson said in an e-mail.
Ms. Cohen had sued Ms. Port for $3-million in damages, but has since pledged to drop that suit.
Ms. Port, meanwhile, is pressing forward, telling the Daily News that Ms. Cohen "defamed herself" by suing in the first place and drawing attention to the "Skanks" blog.
"This has become a public spectacle and a circus that is not my doing," she told the paper. "By going to press, she defamed herself ... before her suit, there were probably two hits on my website: one from me looking at it and one from her looking at it.
"That was before it became a spectacle."