Skip to content

Online Norms and Culture

Can a Website Operator Disclose Identifying Information About Blog Commenters?

groundhog-smOver on The Faculty Lounge and Prawfsblawg there is an emerging kerfuffle over whether it breaks any laws, or leads to any liability, for a blog operator to disclose the email addresses or IP address of people that post comments there. The whole debate is somewhat ridiculously wrapped up in a brouhaha that it’s not worth going into, and involves Paul Campos, Brian Leiter, Leiter’s co-blogger Dan Filler, The Faculty Lounge (where Filler also posts), the whole Law-School-Is-a-Scam movement, anonymous trolls, and who knows what else. Suffice it to say it is reaching kerfuffled heights of kerfuffledness. I’m just interested in the legal question as an Internet Law issue. If you really must know more, you can follow the links in wrap-up posts on Volokh Conspiracy and Above the Law.

(Aside: The whole thing reminds me of a lawsuit between neighbors. Some dispute arises between the two — maybe one doesn’t keep his or her grass cut short enough. Pretty soon the neighbors come to hate each other, and seek to express that hate in legal claims over every perceived infraction dating years back, no matter how tenuous the relation of those claims is to any facts. Before you know it, they’ve got dueling civil RICO lawsuits against each other, and they are telling their lawyers, “it’s the principle of the matter!” I tell my students they should see dollar signs when they hear that phrase, at least if they are billing by the hour, but other attorneys have told me what they hear is, “Run away!“)

Let’s start with a hypothetical, in order to avoid the need for any hyper-ventilated speculation. A runs a blog on which B comments, providing an email address that is not displayed with the comment, which A then provides to third party C. Is A liable for anything?

One point worth noting right away is that, unless you add more facts to the hypo, there’s nothing in it that would hinge liability on whether the disclosure is to one person or 1,000 people. So what people are suggesting is some legal provision that would prohibit a blog operator from posting on the site, “Dear ObstreperousMan, using email address and posting from IP address, I’m sick of your rude and abusive comments, and you are not welcome here any more.” Is there something in the law that would prohibit such behavior or subject the blog operator to liability?

The short answer is no, I can’t think of any basis on which the blog operator would be liable for such conduct. It seems clear that the actual law is only a small and perhaps relatively insignificant part of the furor, but I still found it to be an interesting intellectual exercise, so let me walk through what people have suggested.Read More »Can a Website Operator Disclose Identifying Information About Blog Commenters?