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A SWAT for hunting down people who want to remain anonymous

Submitted by on Thursday, 18 June 2009 No Comment

It’s a situation so outrageous that even those who don’t like the American Civil Liberties Union are singing its praises.

A federal prosecutor in Nevada wants a judge to force the Las Vegas Review-Journal to turn over everything the papers knows about readers who commented online about a story.

The story at issue is about a tax fraud trial in which Las Vegas business owner Robert Kahre and others are accused of after paying contractors with gold and silver U.S. coins based on the precious metal value  but using the much lower face value of the coins for tax purposes.

The subpoena would require the paper to turn over the names of people who posted comments about the trial, as well as their gender, birth date, physical address, telephone number, Internet service provider, IP address, credit card numbers and more.

Talk about a fishing net big enough to snare Shamu.

The paper plans to fight the subpoena on First Amendment grounds, and the ACLU has offered to represent anyone who feel threatened by the action.

The feds say they need the information because comments on the paper’s Web site threaten jurors in the case and, as an extension, threaten the defendants’ rights to a fair trial.

The threat: “The sad thing is there are 12 dummies on the jury who will convict (Kahre). They should be hung along with the feds.”

Grammatical issues aside, I’m inclined to agree that the feds ought to be hanged if they have nothing better to do than chase down something that’s clearly nothing more than hyperbole. Unless, of course, they really do still routinely hang federal prosecutors in Nevada.

“Threats” like this are commonplace in virtually any online forum in the world – in good old-fashioned letters to the editor, too, for that matter.

In the scheme of “threats,” public hanging is actually mild. I’ve seen folks go back and forth for months, exchanging threats of cyberstalking complaints and offers to meet to duke it out.

They’ve called each other far worse than “socialist, fascist Mormon” – huh?  -  and a “Nazi moron,” which is what online commenters called the prosecutor in the Las Vegas case.

The kicker would be, though, if the feds actually succeeded in getting the subpoena granted and the paper was forced to turn over a great big pile of nothing.

If someone’s commenting anonymously on a newspaper site, chances are his or her registration is going to be complete gibberish. Sure, the feds might be able to track down something from IP address, but if the commenter goes online via one of the big providers, good luck on that count. It’s not impossible, but it takes some work.

And for what? Because someone criticized a thin-skinned prosecutor?

U.S. attorneys, Stop Wasting America’s Time trying to track down anonymous commenters just because you don’t like what they’re saying about you.

Know of someone who deserves a SWAT? Click here to make a nomination.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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