Outing Godzilla

An Internet crack in the Chinese wall

If you view any news article online, some server, somewhere, will record your computer’s IP address. If you want to leave a comment after you’ve finished reading, the site may ask you to register.

An article earlier this month in the Pensacola News Journal raises a new, internet-era question: is this user data fair game for reporting?

The story starts in November of 2006, when conservative activist Jeff Bergosh was elected to Pensacola, Florida’s county school board. Less than two weeks later, “Godzilla” was born, when Bergosh anonymously registered the nickname to use Web forums hosted by the News Journal.

Over the next year, Bergosh, cloaked as Godzilla, railed against teachers’ unions (“obstacle #1” to educational reform), other board members (after voting 4-1 against Bergosh, he could hear their “spines breaking in unison”), and his fellow forum posters (“Get the F out and don’t let the door hit your a@@ on the way out”). He offered opinions rarely expressed in public education: compulsory high school should be ended and truants abandoned. Once, during a teacher pay dispute, Godzilla even went so far as to as to heap praise on his puppet master: “we can count on Board member (Jeff) Bergosh”.

News Journal reporter Sara Rabb saw the postings, and noticed that Godzilla and Bergosh tended to use similar phrases. According to executive editor Richard Schneider, Rabb then asked the online managing editor, an editorial employee, if there was any way to find out if Godzilla was Bergosh. A quick check of the paper’s Web registration information showed that whoever registered Godzilla had used Bergosh’s home email account.

As Rabb did more reporting, she found out that Godzilla’s real world identity had been widely assumed by others. In fact, the school board’s spokesperson had broached Bergosh about the matter over lunch in September, and recalled warning him that the secret was “pretty much common knowledge.”

When Rabb confronted Bergosh with the information, he admitted that he was Godzilla. But then, according to Rabb’s first article on the matter, published October 4, Bergosh called a few hours later to deny that he was Godzilla. Once the article was online, Godzilla took to the forums “officially denying” that he was Bergosh. Eventually, Bergosh finally, definitively, came clean on a local radio show, where he asked “Why am I targeted for identity ‘ouster’…? The context in which the forum was originally intended was to provide anonymity for ALL that chose to participate.”

While all that back tracking can’t have done Bergosh any favors, he did find many users on the paper’s website—who almost without exception go by pseudonyms—who agreed that his privacy had been unduly broached.

“How dare you ‘out’ someone who is anonymously posting here,” asked the aptly named My2Cents.

“Shame on you, PNJ. This is the lowest of the low,” wrote whetherguy.

“I see this as a breach of the system,” wrote Edward from Milton.

So who’s right here?

It’s unlikely readers would have complained if the facts were a little different—say if the News Journal had revealed that Bergosh was using a shadowy front organization to flyer cars outside a PTA meeting.

But it’s just as easy to construct a hypothetical going the other way, especially since the outing was done, in part, with information that the paper obtained outside of news gathering. What if the paper had written a story about a local budget official bouncing a subscription-renewal check, or about hard times at local car dealer after they reduced an ad buy?

When asked about the ethics of sharing registration information in-house, Schenider admitted that he hadn’t considered the issue, especially since News Journal editorial employees were responsible for the user database. But to me, that seems like an argument to change who’s in charge—what paper would have a reporter maintain the subscriber list?

Legally, the paper is safe; its Gannett-drafted online terms of service clearly state that they can reveal users’ personal information for any reason and without notice.

But most users have probably never seen, let alone read the seven page document. And before the paper exposed Godzilla as Bergosh, most posters assumed their pseudonyms would be protected.

Schneider himself (posting under his real name) took to the forums to reassure posters that this was not about to become a routine reporting avenue. But he defended his actions. “We believe public officials should not be doing the people’s business in private,” he wrote, adding “I don’t buy the violation of privacy argument, sorry. Not for a public official.”

It doesn’t appear that he’s convinced the angry, typing crowd.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.