Ruling challenges online anonymity

By Associated Press, 10/17/2000

MIAMI - In a ruling that challenges online anonymity, a Florida appeals court declared yesterday that Internet service providers must divulge the identities of people who post defamatory messages on the Internet.

Critics of the ruling say it could have a chilling effect on free expression in Internet chat rooms.

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

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

Hvide's attorney Bruce Fischman 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. If there was no showing of defamation, the ACLU reasoned, the critics should remain anonymous.

However, on Thursday, the court dissolved a stay freezing subpoenas for the records of Yahoo! Inc. and America Online Inc., whose service was used by one of the defendants in the defamation case.

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.