SPOKANE, Wash. – After what Mayor James West (search) called his "brutal outing" by a newspaper that published transcripts of his conversations from a gay chat room, he complained in an e-mail to the city's commission on race relations.
West asked: "Should we all fear that our private conversations will be splashed publicly and out of context for all in our sphere to see?" The answer, Internet privacy advocates say, is "yes."
"Online anonymity is kind of hard to come by," said Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer information privacy group in San Diego.
"You cannot count on anonymity in virtually any online communication, unless you are an expert at using encryption and do a lot of research on the service you are using," Givens said.
After receiving a tip the mayor was offering city jobs to young men he met in a Gay.com chat room, The Spokesman-Review found a way to corroborate the information without having to subpoena records from the chat room's sponsor.
It hired a computer expert to track the identity of the person behind the screen names "Cobra82," "RightBiGuy" and "JMSElton" that it suspected was the mayor.
As a result, West is the subject of a recall for alleged misuse of a city-owned computer for offering internships to young men he met in the gay chat room.
Several civic and business groups have called for West to resign, which he has refused to do.
But the newspaper's series touched off debate about a public figure's private life and about the degree of privacy one can expect on the Internet.
"A chat room is more like having a discussion in a bar. Anyone can come in and listen and participate," said Chris Hoofnagle, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center-West in San Francisco. "People can hide in the dark corner without you even realizing they are there."
Despite use of anonymous screen names in chat rooms, or moving the conversations to instant messaging services, privacy is not a sure thing on the Internet, the experts said.
"If someone is determined to find out who you are, they will," Givens said.
Law enforcement routinely uses subpoenas in terrorism, child pornography and other investigations to find the identities of Internet chat room users.
But what was unusual about this case was that someone not currently involved with law enforcement was able to unmask a person who thought they were operating anonymously.
City Attorney Mike Connelly appointed a five-person commission into West's alleged misuse of city computers and the U.S. Department of Justice started a preliminary inquiry to see if the mayor violated any federal laws.
The newspaper's ruse upset Steve Eugster, a Spokane lawyer and former city councilman, who said the online investigation violated West's privacy and may have been entrapment.
Eugster wrote Connelly to caution that the city could be inviting potential liability by investigating allegations based on the newspaper's investigative techniques.
But Duane Swinton, a media affairs lawyer who frequently represents The Spokesman-Review, said there are differences between police entrapment and the newspaper's newsgathering methods.
"There's nothing I'm aware of that constitutes a civil claim of entrapment," Swinton said. "It would have to be an invasion of privacy violation. But the law in that area is fairly clear, and in this type of forum, there is no expectation of privacy."
Most government entities and private corporations own the networks their employees use and generally have polices stating their use is not subject to inspection by others, Swinton said.
Most instant messaging providers have strict privacy policies that preclude releasing information on users, except for law enforcement purposes, America Online spokesman Nicholas Graham said Wednesday.
"You can sign up in a very legal way, but provide no information that identifies you," he said. Most free instant messaging services require only a screen name, user-generated password and e-mail address, making it difficult to trace someone, Graham said.