06/22/00- Updated 10:59 PM ET

Lawsuits may threaten Web anonymity

By Paul Davidson, USA TODAY

Corporations are increasingly striking back against their online critics in court, threatening the Internet's status as a cauldron of anonymous free speech.

The battle centers around message boards devoted to virtually every public company and run by Yahoo, America Online and others. Concealing their identities with screen names, investors speculate about a company's prospects; employees vent about the workplace.

The forums have exploded along with the Net and Americans' stock holdings. But companies in droves are suing the kibitzers, claiming postings are libelous or come from workers disclosing proprietary information. Often, they complain, the writers are trying to manipulate stock for personal gain.

Dozens of lawsuits have emerged the past year, says Paul Levy of Public Citizen.

"Companies are tired of taking it on the chin," responds Bruce Fischman, a Florida lawyer who represents about 50 firms in such lawsuits.

The catch: After filing a "John Doe" lawsuit, a firm subpoenas the message board to learn the critics' names or e-mail addresses. Until recently, Yahoo, the most popular soapbox, complied instantly. It now provides 15 days' notice so defendants can try to guard their identities in court.

Privacy advocates say most lawsuits are without merit and dropped as soon as the names are revealed. "They want to shut these people up," or retaliate, especially against employees, says the American Civil Liberties Union's Ann Beeson. In a prominent case, Raytheon last year sued about 20 employees over comments about the defense giant's finances. Four had to resign. The rest were advised of the company's ban against disclosing information. Beeson called the lawsuit a move to quiet them. Raytheon's David Polk disputed that.

Beeson says firms should have to virtually prove their cases before names are released, saying company bashers are entitled to the same anonymity courts have afforded political speakers.

But in a first-of-its-kind ruling, Judge Eleanor Schockett rejected that view last month, ordering Yahoo and AOL to identify eight John Does who suggested Fort Lauderdale's J. Erik Hvide might be guilty of securities violations. He ultimately had to resign as CEO of Hvide Marine. The John Does are appealing, but, if upheld, the ruling could have a "chilling effect" on Web chatter, says their lawyer, Chris Leigh.

Fischman, who represents Hvide, says, "They ruined this guy's life and career. You've got the right to know who's attacking you."

Yet, such damage is often not apparent. Electronics maker Thomas & Betts (TNB) recently sued 50 John Does over postings it says were false or proprietary. One muses about delays in a new computer system: "Is anyone willing to speculate" whether it sparked the chief financial officer's retirement? The author, a TNB salesman, says he was just being conversational but that TNB wants to control all information. TNB would not comment.