Fighting Over Free Speech

By David Armstrong

NEW YORK Many company managers and executives, wanting to sue the anonymous authors of negative comments about them or their companies in online message boards and chat rooms, are surprised to find that their searches lead back to their own current or former employees.

Click Here for Past Articles In the past few years, company managers have filed nearly 100 cases against Internet users who post anonymous messages about companies and corporate executives on financial sites such as Yahoo! and AOL.

High-profile companies like E-Trade, Sun Microsystems and Raytheon are just a few of the companies that have filed suits against their detractors, under grounds that such anonymous posts are defamatory, slanderous or distributing proprietary information.

"I am not saying people shouldn't be allowed to say what they want to say, as long as they speak responsibly like they do in the outside world," said Miami attorney Bruce Fischman, who has represented a number of companies in Internet defamation suits. "But if they cross the line and they commit defamation, they are going to be held responsible and their identity is going to be exposed."

What makes the suits unique is that often, given the anonymity of a Web site chat room or message board, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit don't know whom to sue. The suits that name "John Doe" as the defendant usually require the Internet portal or ISP to give personal information about the person who posted the offending material.

In a high-profile case last year, the Raytheon company sued 21 individuals who anonymously engaged in a discussion in a Yahoo! chat room. The company accused the posters of releasing proprietary information that could have hurt the company.

Most of the defendants, however, were Raytheon employees. The lawsuit was eventually dropped, and four employees quit. The others were reprimanded.

"Raytheon was trying to protect proprietary information," said a Raytheon spokesman. "It wasn't that someone in the company didn't like what was being said."

But critics say many of the lawsuits are attempts to scare individuals from making negative comments about a company in a public space. And that is a violation of free speech.

Now, the John Does are fighting back.

Last month, "Aquacool_2000," the online name of an anonymous Yahoo! user, filed a lawsuit in United States District Court in Los Angeles against the Internet portal for releasing his private information to lawyers who wanted to sue him.

Aquacool_2000 accused Yahoo! of violating his privacy, breaking a contract of anonymity online and engaging in false advertising by saying its service was private.

Yahoo! gave the identity of Aquacool_2000, named after an office watercolor, to lawyers representing Answerthink Consulting Group, Inc., after Aquacool_2000 posted several negative comments about the company on a Yahoo! message board. At the heart of the suit is the fact that Yahoo! failed to inform Aquacool_2000 that it was releasing his private information.

The case is significant because it is the first time an Internet user, accused by a company of defamation in an anonymous message board, has fought back, alleging that the Internet portal violated his expectation of privacy.

"What we have seen for the past year or so is large companies that are much too sensitive to being criticized by a person they may consider beneath them," said Megan Gray, the lawyer representing Aquacool_2000. "They have shown they are wielding big sticks to beat back people from voicing their opinion."

While the Aquacool_2000 suit is the first time a "John Doe" has sought legal redress against an Internet company, there are plenty of others waiting to see how the case develops.

Many of the defendants of these "cyber smear cases" have created a web site www.johndoes.org offering support, attorney referrals, and discussions of free-speech issues and the Internet. The site has message boards and invites employees and former employees to make anonymous comments about individual companies.

But Johndoes.org also includes a warning, buried in the users agreement, that the host of the Web site, NewsOp.net, will have no choice but to comply with legal subpoenas asking they turn over user information.