No anonymity for internet chatrooms

Internet service providers must divulge the identities of people who post defamatory messages on the world wide web, a US court has ruled.

The ruling comes despite the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to protect the identity of eight individuals who posted anonymous missives on a Yahoo! financial chat room about Erik Hvide, the former chief of Hvide Marine.

Hvide alleges that personal attacks against him also caused damage to the company's image.

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

The ACLU had wanted the court first to rule on whether Hvide had actually been defamed before identifying the defendants, named in court papers only as John Doe.

If there was no showing of defamation, the ACLU reasoned, the critics should remain anonymous.

Lauren Gelman, public policy director with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is concerned that other courts could follow the lead of the 3rd District Court of Appeals in approving subpoenas.

"This kind of speech happens all the time in all kinds of chat rooms," Gelman said. "We don't want to see these subpoenas become regularly used to cause people to self-censor themselves."

Both internet companies took a back seat in the lawsuit, saying they would do whatever the judges said.