Firms Ordered to Identify Internet Message Posters
Plaintiff in a defamation suit seeks the identities of anonymous chat
room users who criticized him online.
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
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
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
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
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.