Salutary Legislative Efforts to Permit Pseudonymous Litigation
Cyber harassment often invades victims’ privacy by exposing their sensitive personal information, revealing photographs, and the like. Because search engines reproduce information cached online, time’s passage cannot alleviate their reputational, emotional, and physical damage. Unlike newspapers, which were once only easily accessible in libraries after their publication, search engines now index all content on the web, and can produce it instantaneously. Victims must live with digital privacy invasions that are deeply humiliating, reputation-harming, and potentially dangerous, as well as searchable and accessible from anywhere, and by anyone, in the world. Often, the information is taken out of context, producing a distorted and damaging view of the person.
While lawsuits can serve to redress victims for these harms, they also risk compounding the severity of these privacy problems. Law often permits victims to sue perpetrators for intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and defamation. But victims typically must bring such civil lawsuits in their own names. As a result, the complaints, which are available to the press and interested individuals, further publicize the cyber harassment, exacerbating the privacy harms suffered by victims. In turn, victims may refrain from pursuing their harassers in court not because they lack legitimate claims but because they fear exposing themselves to further privacy invasions.
Hawaii’s proposed Senate Bill 288, if enacted, could be invoked to combat this problem when the online harassment occurs in domestic abuse cases. The bill would permit pseudonymous papers “in cases of alleged domestic abuse where the alleged victim has already received an order of protection, temporary restraining order, or protective order against the accused party.” The bill covers cases where pseudonymous filing is “reasonably necessary to protect the privacy of the alleged victim and will not unduly prejudice the prosecution of the defense.” The proposed legislation permits victims of domestic abuse, including cases involving online harassment, to bring law’s coercive power to bear against perpetrators. Because the bill allows courts to weigh the victim’s interest in privacy against the public’s interest in disclosure, it aims to protect privacy and transparency. Disappointingly, however, the bill only covers cases involving domestic abuse, thus failing to reach instances of online harassment involving privacy invasions where victims may refuse to sue their attackers for fear of publicity.