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Anarchy on the Internet

The Internet provides vast amounts of information but it can also spread vast amounts of misinformation, or even deliberately misleading disinformation.

For more than two weeks, scarcely a day has gone by without e-mails pouring in to me, asking about columns that someone has written and brazenly spread around the Internet with my name on them.

Most of these e-mails have come from regular readers who are savvy enough to recognize columns that have a different style and substance from my own columns.

We usually think of “identity theft” as involving using someone else’s name for economic fraud. But identity theft can be used for political fraud as well– as in this case.

Creators Syndicate, the authorized distributor of my column, is investigating this situation, and it has been like trying to unravel a mystery in a detective story.

First of all, they discovered that there was a blogger on the Internet making unauthorized distributions of not only my column, but also of columns from the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Universal Press Syndicate and the Washington Post. But there was no way to contact that blogger directly.

Since the blogger who posted the recent phony column uses the facilities of Google, an e-mail was sent to Google, which brought a response from people identified only as “The Blogger Team,” who declared: “We strongly believe in freedom of expression, even if a blog contains unappealing or distasteful content or presents unpopular viewpoints.”

We are all against censorship but the right of free speech does not cover libel, threats or identity theft.

Creators Syndicate’s attorney– Charles Adamek of Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell LLP in Los Angeles– pointed out in a formal reply that Google has itself created rules for people who set up blogs, and that not enforcing those rules means accepting “this blogger’s activity in misappropriating Dr. Sowell’s identity and passing off writings as if they were Dr. Sowell’s when they are not.”

That message brought another e-mail reply from the same anonymous Blogger Team, essentially repeating what had been said before: “We strongly believe in freedom of expression, even if a blog contains unappealing or distasteful content or presents unpopular viewpoints.”

Finally, this situation came to the attention of Editor & Publisher magazine, the leading trade publication of the newspaper industry.

On August 15th Dave Astor of Editor & Publisher posted an account of what had happened under the title, “Blogger’s ‘Impersonation’ of Columnist Leads to Creators-Google Tussle.”

This account also said, “Aug. 13 and Aug. 14 e-mails from ‘The Blogger Team’ at Google indicated that the company may finally be looking into the problem. But the piece attributed to Sowell remains on the blog as of this afternoon– Aug. 15th.”

This was more than two weeks after the phony column was posted and more than ten days after Google was notified by the attorney for Creators Syndicate.

Finally, on August 18th, Dave Astor of Editor & Publisher posted another account with the headline, “Blog No Longer Posting Wrongly Attributed Sowell Piece.”

What is surprising to me is that the bogus column sent out with my name on it has been spread around the Internet in a chain letter, which means that people are passing on something to others when they have no way of knowing whether it is for real or a hoax, much less whether they might get drawn into a lawsuit.

The implications of this episode reach well beyond the newspaper industry. Everyone should be concerned about Internet anarchy in which anybody can pretend to be anybody else, unless something is done to stop it.

If hoaxes like this go unchecked, who can believe anything they see on the Internet? What good would the Internet be then?

If the people who control Internet web sites do not do anything, is that not an open invitation for government to step in? And does anybody want politicians to control what can go on the Internet?