Liskula Cohen inhaled sharply, glanced at her keyboard and punched her name into Google. She wasn't indulging idle curiosity that day in August 2008, but investigating an unnerving piece of news. A few hours earlier, the 37-year-old Canadian model had been on a fashion shoot on a Florida beach when her client casually enquired whether she was aware that she was the subject of a blog called skanksinNYC.com on the Google hosted website Blogger.com.
"He seemed to think it was something funny," recalls Cohen, a 20-year veteran of the modelling industry who has appeared in US marie claire and Elle, as well as for Giorgio Armani and Versace. But Cohen wasn't amused. For the rest of the day, she worried about what might have been written about her.
Clicking on the blog, she was shocked to read herself described as "psychotic, lying, whoring, still going to clubs at her age, skank", and began to register the sheer scale of the attack. Alongside even more derogatory slurs, which would be defamatory to repeat here, Cohen saw a photograph she immediately recognised from a friend's MySpace page.
It was a jokey shot her friend had snapped years earlier in New York nightclub Cipriani, when Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, had walked in. Cigarette in mouth and bottom raised, Cohen had struck a feline pose on the table. "There was nowhere for me to go, so I knelt on the table for all but a second and a half, and she walked past. I moved my ass quickly for royalty," she quips. On MySpace, the mildly saucy picture was clearly harmless. But cropped and taken out of context, it seemed to give credence to the malice.
"It was awful," reveals Cohen. "I was so mortified." Her thoughts flew to her parents, friends and modelling clients. How many people had seen this vicious blog? And who was behind it? "I have a thick skin, but I have worked hard to have an unblemished reputation, and if I had an enemy out there, I wanted to know who it was," Cohen explains over the phone from her apartment in New York's hip Chelsea neighbourhood.
Humiliated, but not someone to be cowed so easily, Cohen set out to unmask the anonymous blogger.
What she couldn't have known then was that this simple wish would embroil her in a legal case against internet behemoth Google. It would make headlines worldwide, and propel Cohen into the unlikely role of anti-cyberbullying campaigner. But even more significantly, her determination to reveal the identity of the author of skanksinNYC.com would challenge many of our assumptions about the internet. What can – and can't – be said on the web? And just how much control do you have over what is posted about you – and what you post – online?
What's clear is that social networking and blogging has exploded in the past few years. According to State Of The Blogosphere 2009, a report by blog search engine Technorati, 133 million blogs have been indexed since 2002, with 346 million readers and 900,000 posts each day. Use of social networking sites has similarly skyrocketed. More than 350 million people belong to Facebook, according to its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, while unique Twitter visits increased from 475,000 in February 2008 to seven million last February.
Cohen's legal battle arose because Google refused to divulge the identity of the skanksinNYC.com blogger. In fact, the internet giant spent more than $100,000 in court costs trying to keep the identity secret, and only complied when the New York Supreme Court ordered it do so.For Google, there was a great deal at stake: its reputation among millions of its customers hinges on their desire for anonymity. "That's for Google's protection as well," explains Jeremy Storer, communications and media
lawyer at Sydney firm Blake Dawson. "[The company] can say, 'Well, of course we wouldn't have released your identity, but we've been directed to do it.'"
Although taking on Google seemed as daunting as David taking on Goliath, Cohen needed the skanksinNYC.com blogger's details so she could mount a defamation case and restore her battered reputation.
On January 6, 2009, Cohen was on a Miami beach shooting for her portfolio when she took a call from a journalist at New York tabloid the Daily News. He told her he was going public with her battle to unmask the person behind skanksinNYC.com. Within hours, the fuse was lit on a global explosion of commentary. To the media, the story offered an irresistible combination of an attractive woman engaged in a New York City catfight, which also involved an internet superpower. Cohen found the scrutiny unbearable. "I remember quite literally holding myself back from throwing myself under a bus."
A few weeks later, at the Cohen v Google Supreme Court hearing, she found herself overwhelmed by emotion as she listened to a recitation of the now-defunct blog's full content, which included slurs about her age, appearance, sexual activity and hygiene. "One journalist was trying to record me crying. It was sick," recalls Cohen. "It was awful. To this day, when I hear those names, I cringe. It's upsetting. This is going to haunt me for a long time."
Six months later, Cohen was at home on tenterhooks waiting for the call from her lawyer, Steven Wagner, that would reveal the identity of her cyberspace attacker. Downstairs, the media circus continued unabated. Journalists and photographers loitered, sitting on fold-out chairs, ready to pounce whenever she took Chaya, her cocker spaniel, for a walk. Not that she was going out much. Increasingly wary of socialising and concerned about further damage to her already suffering career, Cohen's usual confidence was running low.
Cohen's immediate fear was that the blogger would turn out to be Samir Dervisevic, the 25-year-old doorman who had assaulted her with a vodka bottle in a bar in January 2007, permanently scarring her face. But it wasn't him.
In fact, the anonymous blogger was someone Cohen had never suspected. It was 29-year-old Fashion Institute of Technology student Rosemary Port, an acquaintance in Cohen's social circle, who was reportedly aggrieved by negative comments the model had allegedly made about Port to the blogger's on again/off again boyfriend, Daniel Dimin.
Perhaps overwhelmed by relief, when Cohen learnt Port was responsible, she laughed. "I was like, 'Oh my God, are you kidding me?' She's an irrelevant person in my life." Cohen, who says she did nothing to provoke Port, called and immediately offered her forgiveness, a gesture she acknowledges confounded even those closest to her. "If I don't forgive her, then that means I have to carry around her anger and hate and self-loathing forever," she notes. Cohen also spontaneously dropped plans for her defamation action. "There is no reason to do it ... it's bringing me nothing – not on a financial, but on a mental or spiritual level." The pair later sat down to a three-hour lunch and resolved their differences. According to Cohen, Port was profusely contrite. "But I said, 'You humiliated me and defamed me publicly. If you want to apologise, you do that publicly.'"
Since naming and shaming her attacker, Cohen, a survivor of placenta cancer, has been hailed by some as an anti-cyberbullying champion. "I hope in years to come when they have these problems, people will refer to Cohen v Google," she says. "It's really becoming an epidemic."
Last September, Cohen cemented her new-found role when she participated in an internet privacy forum at The University of Tennessee, together with respected journalist John Seigenthaler, whose reputation was tainted in 2005 by an anonymous "troll" (a term used to refer to people who post unfounded negative material on the internet) on user-generated online encyclopedia Wikipedia. The post falsely claimed that he was a suspect in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
"As an advocate for ... free expression in a democratic society, I have no interest in suing anybody for libel," wrote Seigenthaler afterwards. "I do have an interest in letting as many people as possible know that, while Wikipedia may provide a great deal of factual information, it also is a flawed and irresponsible research tool. What purports to be helpful fact may well be harmful fiction. And there is no way to tell the difference."
One of the most tragic examples of fiction masquerading as fact on the internet involved Megan Meier, a 13-year-old Missouri girl who committed suicide in 2006 after her virtual boyfriend, "16-year-old Josh Evans", started sending her cruel messages. In reality, "Josh" was Lori Drew, 47, the mum of one of Megan's classmates. Tina, Megan's mother, contacted Cohen to offer her support. "I only had to be reminded of Megan Meier once to know that this battle was well worth the fight; to receive emails from her mother telling me to 'be strong' and that I was in her thoughts," reflects Cohen.
Tina Meier's battle for justice was stymied by inadequacies in the law. In the end, Drew was convicted of three misdemeanours that were subsequently thrown out because manipulating a child isn't legally proscribed, begging the question: is the law struggling to keep up with technology? Storer acknowledges that, "for a while, legislators were scrambling to keep up with the changes".
Laurel Papworth*, a social network strategist, asserts the law has next to no chance of evolving quickly enough. Citing Facebook's use of technology that identifies you in other people's photographs, she says privacy as we know it is headed for history's dustbin. "Our legal system is in strife around these issues."
There is a growing awareness that, when you sign up for the benefits of a site like Facebook, you're trading off some portion of your privacy, adds Papworth. But many people still aren't careful enough.
For those who wish to use the internet to vent their spleen, the golden rule is: be careful. As sites like Twitter grow in popularity, your throwaway lines can render you vulnerable to legal action. Last March, singer Courtney Love found herself within reach of the internet's long tentacles when she was sued for libel by fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir over Love's Twitter rant, in which she allegedly argued about the price she should pay for Simorangkir's clothes. The case is still before the courts.
The Cohen v Google judge discounted the argument that blogs can't be libellous because they "serve as a modern-day forum for conveying personal opinions". For Storer, the case "has dispelled some of the myths about the internet being some sort of special zone or a different dimension to the real world, where different laws apply. That's not the case."
And if you thought anonymity was sacrosanct, the Cohen v Google case is instructive. "When I was being defended by attorneys for Google, I thought my right to privacy was being protected, but that right fell through the cracks," said Port in a statement issued by her lawyer, Salvatore Strazzullo. "I would think that a multi-billion dollar conglomerate would protect the rights of all its users." Port reportedly is planning to counter-sue the internet behemoth for $16 million for not protecting her privacy. The question of Google's obligation to protect users has prompted debate in the online community, but Papworth is unequivocal: "They're Australia Post – they're delivering a message; they're not the police."
Cohen claims that Port's counter legal action is "completely bogus. She was never suing Google. [Strazzullo] has released statements on her behalf. She has never spoken to the media at all. Not a sentence." According to Cohen, Port – who didn't respond to marie claire's interview request – is bound by suppression orders tied to her settlement agreement with Cohen.
Despite the popularity of conscientiously nasty sites such as perezhilton.com (ranked the 491st most-trafficked website on the internet), the internet isn't necessarily growing more malicious, argues Papworth. "If that was true, there would be snarky blogs littered through lists, like the top 100 blogs as measured by Google. A small, vocal percentage of the internet uses anonymity for vitriolic reasons. There's also a small percentage of people who use anonymity because their life is in danger," she adds, alluding to the protection anonymity offers to whistleblowers and the politically oppressed.
Managing your own presence online, Papworth says, is the most effective weapon you have against cyberbullying. "Do you have a voice?" she asks. For most people, setting up a strong online presence in a blog, or on Twitter or Facebook, will suffice. For those seriously concerned about the extent to which they're being maligned in cyberspace, there are remedies. Sites such as reputationdefender.com offer – for a fee – to pad out your profile with a series of positive blogs and web pages, pushing any negative entries down the Google results chain.
If, like Cohen, you're vilified and you opt to take on your detractor in court, it's worth considering the side effects. Eighteen months after Port's blog appeared, if you Google "Liskula Cohen and skank" you'll turn up 228,000 results. Before it was shut down last March, the skanksinNYC.com blog had just 1200 hits.
Cohen is now ready to move on: she has her own blog (mynameisliskula.blogspot.com) and, together with well-known US media personality Pat O'Brien, she intends to launch a reality television program called Nothing But The Truth.
While she acknowledges the price she paid to clear her name, Cohen has no regrets. "Never in my life have I had to deal with anything like this before. Yes, I had cancer and yes, I got stabbed and I've had my downfalls, but I've never experienced such an emotional – and personal – attack on my character. I knew I had to do something to make it right," she insists. And she offers some hard-won wisdom: "Don't put anything on the internet that you wouldn't put on TV, or in a newspaper or in a magazine. Because there's a good chance that it might end up there."Main image has been digitally altered. Photo posed by a model, not Liskula Cohen. *Laurel Papworth is ranked fourth in the top 100 Australian women bloggers. For more details, visit www.blogchicks.com.au