Chat Room Identities Must Be Revealed, Court Rules

By Kathleen Murphy

The Internet has been a haven for anonymous free speech, but corporations are finding ways to unveil the identities of their online critics in court.

A Florida court ruled this week that service providers must reveal the identities of people who post defamatory messages on the Net, a decision that could lay the groundwork for unmasking scores of anonymous investors and employers who speculate about a company's prospects or vent about the workplace on message boards run by Yahoo and America Online. Dozens of lawsuits have emerged in the past year with corporate claims that the postings are libelous or attributable to workers disclosing proprietary information.

"Companies have become victims of massive Internet attacks," said Bruce Fischman, the attorney for J. Erik Hvide, the Florida resident who alleged the personal attacks against him also caused damage to his company's image.

Earlier this year, Judge Eleanor Schockett ordered Yahoo and AOL to identify eight John Does who suggested Hvide might be guilty of securities violations. Hvide ultimately had to resign as CEO of Hvide Marine. The John Does appealed, but the ruling was upheld Monday.

The ruling "sends the message that civility needs to be added to the Internet," Fischman said. Users of chat rooms don't have a legitimate expectation of anonymity because they use pseudonyms in making their statements, Fischman said. And plaintiffs in defamation cases have the right to litigate against named defendants and know their attackers, Fischman said.

The American Civil Liberties Union tried to protect the identity of the John Does. Companies' lawsuits are designed to squash robust discussion of the pluses and minuses of corporations and their leaders, said Chris Hansen, senior staff counsel for the ACLU.

In some cases, when companies subpoena a message board to learn the critics' names or e-mail addresses, the cases are dropped as soon as the names are revealed. ACLU lawyers say the companies' goal is to shut up the speaker, and retaliation against employees is a result. In one well-publicized case last year, Raytheon sued employees over comments regarding the company's finances, and four employees resigned.

Hansen said firms should have to show that they can prove their cases before names are released, saying company bashers are entitled to the same anonymity courts have afforded political speakers.

"We're going to have to keep litigating this issue until we can get some guidance from the courts," Hansen said.

Lauren Gelman, public policy director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the Florida ruling is bad news for anonymity on the Net. The ruling sanctions powerful corporate entities' use of the courts as private detective agencies, Gelman said. The decision could mean that we lose part of what makes the Internet great, and it could have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers and others who will self-censor their critical speech, Gelman said.

"The names should not be disclosed before the court first looks at the evidence and sees if defamation occurred," Gelman said.

Jason Epstein, cofounder of the e-business group at the law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman and Caldwell, said the John Doe cases represent a developing area of Net law.

"We need some kind of standard rule to go by, in which plaintiffs aren't abusing the process by finding out identities, and defendants aren't hiding behind their right to anonymity and free speech," Epstein said.