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2 Firms Ordered to Identify Internet Message Posters

Privacy: Plaintiff in a defamation suit seeks the identities of anonymous chat room users who criticized him online.

October 17, 2000|ASHLEY DUNN and KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In an action that challenges online anonymity, a Florida appeals court has decided that Yahoo Inc. and America Online must divulge the identities of the anonymous Internet users who posted messages critical of a Florida marine services company.

The court's order came against the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union to protect the identity of eight anonymous individuals who posted missives on a Yahoo financial chat room about Erik Hvide, the former chief executive of Hvide Marine Inc.

Hvide alleged that personal attacks against him caused damage to the company's image. He asked a trial judge to issue subpoenas so he could find out who had posted the messages, and the judge agreed.

The ACLU argued that releasing the identities of the John Does before there was any proof that Hvide had actually been defamed would violate the rights of the posters to remain anonymous.

Lyrissa Lidsky, who argued the case on behalf of the ACLU, said the court's decision could send a chilling message to anonymous Internet users that their identities could be exposed by even the most trivial suits by corporations seeking to silence their critics.

Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said a request for subpoenas like the one made by Hvide "can be used to intimidate critics and whistle-blowers."

"Criticism alone can't be the blank check for compelling disclosure," he said.

Hvide's attorney, Bruce Fischman, hailed the ruling, saying it would force Internet users to "think a bit before they speak."

The Florida 3rd District Court of Appeals decided Thursday to allow Hvide to send subpoenas to Yahoo and America Online, which was the Internet service provider for some of the anonymous posters.

Both Internet companies said Monday that they would comply with the subpoenas.

After hearing arguments in the case, the appeals court took the unusual step of allowing the lower court's ruling to stand without issuing a written opinion. That means the court's action last week will not serve as a precedent for future cases involving online anonymity.

Lidsky said the appeals court's refusal to write an opinion was a disappointment because it provided no guidance to other courts facing similar cases. She said an appeal of the ruling is being explored.

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