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Ingram Micro Subpoenas Yahoo for User Profiles

Privacy: Company claims its online critics are former or current workers giving out proprietary information.

November 10, 2000|ROBIN FIELDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ingram Micro Inc., the world's largest computer-products distributor, has taken a step toward unmasking its online critics, subpoenaing Yahoo Inc. to obtain customer information for users of a message board devoted to the Santa Ana company.

Ingram's subpoena is part of a "John Doe" lawsuit in August, claiming the authors--identified only by their online monikers--were current or former employees giving out proprietary company information.

Such lawsuits have become an increasingly common, highly controversial weapon for companies to impose accountability on those who disparage them anonymously online. Many of the suits have been dropped as soon as companies identify their attackers.

Ingram's lawsuit targets a dozen users, including IngramTerrorist and CruelnSadistic, saying their comments violated the terms of their employment agreements. The suit does not specify which comments the company deemed unacceptable, but Ingram's rising prices, quality of service and leadership have all been the subject of griping on the board within the last several months.

Ingram executives would not comment Thursday on the case.

The company's maneuver is already provoking angry responses from its nameless quarry, who were notified of the subpoena last week.

"I guess Ingram Micro does not believe in free speach [sic]!" wrote one of them.

Yahoo, which hosts discussion forums for investors of virtually every publicly traded company, said it sends e-mail to users saying their account information has been demanded. Users then have 15 days to file motions to quash the subpoena or to resolve disputes privately; if neither occurs, Yahoo complies with the subpoena without evaluating the merit of the underlying lawsuit, a company spokeswoman said.

Privacy advocates have protested the increasing use of John Doe lawsuits to break the Internet's veil of anonymity, saying companies are punishing free speech, and portals like Yahoo and America Online are helping them to do so.

In several instances, companies have fired employees who lambasted them in online forums. Yahoo was sued in May by a user who accused the company of illegally disclosing his identity, but the man later withdrew his case.

Ingram Micro has gradually rebounded this year, after a miserable 1999 in which its profit and stock price plummeted, primarily because of an industry-wide price war. The company's morale sank along with its results, and more than a dozen executives left the company.

The company has since installed a new chief executive and imposed a more profitable fees-for-service pricing system on customers.

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