Court: ISPs must divulge defamers
Anonymous Internet postings not protected in Miami case
MIAMI, Oct. 16 — In a ruling
that challenges online anonymity, a Florida appeals court declared Monday
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 companys image.
Hvides 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 Hyde 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.
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
WILL OTHER COURTS FOLLOW?
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 dont
want to see these subpoenas become regularly used to cause people to self-censor
Both Internet companies took a back seat in
the lawsuit, saying they would do whatever the judges said.
Lyrissa Lidsky, who argued the case on behalf
of the ACLU, called the decision a surprise and a setback.
Nevertheless, she said, Its not
a defeat for all the other John Does in the pipeline fighting Internet-related
subpoenas because the court did not explain its legal reasoning.
An appeal is being explored.
The court had the potential to set an
important precedent about the right to speak anonymously on the Internet,
Lidsky said. The courts are eventually going to have to come to
grips with this issue and decide how broad free speech rights are in cyberspace.
The issue is largely untested in the nations
A Virginia federal judge sided with a government
subpoena request in a criminal case, but civil suits in California and
Virginia have not settled the subpoena questions involving anonymous Internet
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