Saturday, November 07, 2009

THE RAPHAEL GOLB case is covered in the New York Times:
2,000-Year-Old Scrolls, Internet-Era Crime

Published: November 6, 2009

Early one morning in March, the law banged on the door of an apartment on Thompson Street in Greenwich Village. Investigators had a warrant to arrest Raphael Haim Golb and seize his computer. He was caught red-handed.

Mr. Golb is, or was, a guerrilla fighter in a cyberbrawl over the Dead Sea Scrolls, a war about the origins of 2,000-year-old documents that has consumed the energy of academics around the globe.

He was being arrested for fighting dirty.

Mr. Golb is 49 years old and had 50 e-mail aliases. He used pseudonyms to post on blogs. Under the name of a professor he was trying to undermine, prosecutors charged, Mr. Golb wrote a quasi confession to plagiarism and circulated it among students and officials at New York University.

It appears that Mr. Golb is not challenging the accusation of making the pseudonymous posts [CORRECTION (9 November): This AP article says he does deny sending them]:
In court papers filed last week, Mr. Golb’s lawyers argued that prosecutors were trying to criminalize the commonplace. Both sides in the Dead Sea Scrolls debate, they said, use “sock puppets” — fake identities — on the Internet to make it seem as if scores of people are arguing a point.

“These bloggers marshaled their legion of sock puppets to engage in intellectual combat with the sock puppets allegedly created by Raphael Golb and others,” the lawyers wrote.

It is true that some bloggers (and commenters) sometimes use sock puppets in comment sections (i.e., make their own viewpoints look more widely held by posting them under multiple fake identities). But this can be detected by people who know what to look for, and when outed the the sock-puppeteers are ridiculed by other bloggers. Sock puppetry is very poor form among bloggers. This defense is rather insulting to conscientious bloggers and commenters, and I doubt that there were "legions" of other sock-puppeteers debating with the author of these posts and e-mails, but it's true that sock puppetry is sometimes used on the Internet. But the issue is surely not the sock puppetry per se, which is pathetic but I can't see anything illegal about it. Rather it is, first, the impersonation of Professor Schiffman and, second, the defamation associated with the impersonation. But I am not a lawyer and I don't know what the legal issues are and I have no idea how the case will turn out.
But what about the injury Mr. Golb apparently tried to inflict on Lawrence H. Schiffman, the chairman of Judaic studies at N.Y.U.? Someone wrote from to Professor Schiffman’s graduate students and dean, alerting them to an article that suggested he had committed plagiarism. Perhaps two things go without saying: The article was actually written under one of Raphael Golb’s pseudonyms, and Professor Schiffman has been critical of the theories of Golb père.

The defense claims that the e-mail messages were transparent parodies, and that in any event, injury to a reputation is a civil matter, not a criminal violation.

“He writes letters in my names in which I am admitting to horrendous offenses,” Professor Schiffman said Friday. “This is the rough-and-tumble of the Internet?”

Again, I don't know the legal ins and outs of the offense, but I do know that if someone tried to damage my good name in this way, I would consider it a very serious matter indeed.

Incidentally, I received one of those messages (of accusation, not one claiming to be from Schiffman himself) and it was in no way clear to me that it was a "parody." It seemed entirely serious.

Background here and follow the links back.

UPDATE (9 November): I have revised this post to gather my thoughts a little more coherently and to make a correction.