A Florida appeals court ruled Monday that Internet service providers (ISPs) must reveal the identities of eight people who anonymously posted allegedly defamatory messages in a Web chat room.
Although privacy advocates from the ACLU had argued that the identities of the eight “John Doe” defendants should not be disclosed, the Third District Court of Appeals in Miami sided with plaintiff Eric Hvide and upheld a lower court’s ruling that America Online (Nasdaq: AOL) and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) must reveal information they have about the defendants.
According to Hvide’s complaint, the defendants made comments in a Yahoo! financial chat room that suggested Hvide might be guilty of securities violations in his capacity as CEO of a company called Hvide Marine. Hvide ultimately resigned from the company.
“They ruined this guy’s life and career,” Hvide’s attorney Bruce Fischman said. “You’ve got the right to know who’s attacking you.”
Critics of the decision charge that it could have a chilling effect on online discussions.
“The court had the potential to set an important precedent about the right to speak anonymously on the Internet,” ACLU attorney Lyrissa Lidsky told reporters. “The courts are eventually going to have to come to grips with this issue and decide how broad free speech rights are in cyberspace.”
With literally thousands of chat rooms on the Internet, businesses and individuals are increasingly taking legal action against anonymous chatters who disclose proprietary information or make defamatory remarks online.
Though a hot topic, rulings have been issued in only a few of the online anonymity cases. In Virginia, a federal judge ordered the identity of online participants revealed in a criminal case; however, civil cases in both Virginia and California involving online anonymity issues are still pending.
Electronic privacy advocates say that most of the lawsuits are frivolous attempts to silence critics, and that the cases are usually dropped as soon as the names are revealed.
For their part, businesses are insisting that people who slander companies in anonymous chat rooms should be subject to the same laws as people who make libelous comments elsewhere. In one case last year, defense giant Raytheon sued 20 employees over comments they made about the company’s finances in an Internet chat room. Four of the employees subsequently resigned.
Until recently, Yahoo! complied immediately after receiving a “John Doe” subpoena demanding the names and e-mail addresses of chat room participants.
Now, in an attempt to give potential defendants an opportunity to guard their identities in court, the ISP gives 15 days notice to the people involved before complying with the subpoena.