Here they go again. Another company is attempting to commit public relations suicide by blowing up the negative commentary of a small, low-traffic blogger into a national story.
An unlikely Internet frontier is Paris, Texas, population 26,490,
where a defamation lawsuit filed by the local hospital against a
critical anonymous blogger is testing the bounds of Internet privacy,
First Amendment freedom of speech and whistle-blower rights.
A state district judge has told lawyers for the hospital and the
blogger that he plans within a week to order a Dallas Internet service
provider to release the blogger's name. The blogger's lawyer, James
Rodgers of Paris, said Tuesday he will appeal to preserve the man's
anonymity and right to speak without fear of retaliation.
Rodgers said the core question in the legal battle is whether a
plaintiff in a lawsuit can "strip" a blogger of anonymity merely by
filing a lawsuit. Without some higher standard to prove a lawsuit has
merit, he said, defamation lawsuits could have a chilling effect on
Internet free speech.
"Anybody could file a lawsuit and say, 'I feel like I've been defamed. Give me the name,' " Rodgers said.
The blog about problems at Essent Healthcare is here, called The-Paris-Site.
Interestingly, the hospital, owned by a company called Essent Healthcare, appears to be using the medical privacy act HIPPA as a bludgeon to try to stifle criticism. To make a case against the hospital, general criticisms about poor care and medical mistakes are best backed up with real stories. But the hospital is in effect saying that real stories can't be used, since doing so violates HIPPA. I don't know if this is or is not a correct application of HIPPA, but it is a danger of HIPPA that I and others warned about years ago. The hospital goes on hilariously about how they are not really worried about the damage to their reputation, but for the poor patients whose medical details ended up in the blogger's hands. Memo to health care workers in the future: If you think the hospital screwed up my care, you have my blanket permission to release the details of said screw-up.
Before starting my own company, I have worked in a number of senior jobs at publicly traded companies and a few soon-to-be-f*cked Internet ventures. In several of these cases, I and my fellow managers came in for pretty rough and profane criticism. In many cases the posts were hilarious, positing well-oiled multi-year conspiracies from a management team that was just trying to survive the day. Most of us were pretty rational about these sites - the more you try to respond to them, the more attention you give them. The best response is to ignore them except maybe on Friday night when you can drink some beers and laugh out loud reading the commentary. But there were always a few folks whose ego just got inflamed by the comments, even though they were seen by maybe 12 people worldwide. They wanted to put a stop to the commenters.
I am sure that this is what is happening here. Because any good PR person who has been in the business for more than 5 minutes would tell you that the worst thing you could do for a critic with a small audience is to a) turn them into a martyr and b) increase their audience about a million-fold. These guys at Essent are just nuts, and in the heat of ego preservation are in the process of making a massive mistake.
I am reminded of TJIC's response when a lawyer threatened to file a BS copyright suit against him:
With regards to your statement that you've been "looking forward for a
class action lawsuit on a case like this", I, too, would enjoy such a
lawsuit. The publicity that we would derive from defeating your firm in
court over a baseless allegation of copyright infringement, brought
about by a law firm and a lawyer that does not understand the First
Sale doctrine, and which are entirely ignorant of the Supreme Court
case law on the topic, would be of incalculable value to us, and would
be a very cost efficient way to further publicize our service.
Update: The blogger appears to have been around since 2005. The article said that as of June, or after about 2 years of operation, he had 170,000-ish page views. He now appears to be at about 230,000 just three months later and only a few weeks after the story went public. Q.E.D.
Update #2: I forgot to include my opinion on the case. There has got to be some higher legal bar to be cleared to strip the anonymity of a blogger than just asking for it to happen during discovery on a lawsuit. If the legislature is not going to establish this bar, then a higher court is going to have to do so.