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Advocacy group defends more John Does

Fresh off a victory in Seattle, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a free-speech group, is fighting another corporate attempt to unmask critics.

Following a victory in a similar case in Washington state, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has signed onto another John Doe lawsuit in an attempt to protect online anonymity.

The EFF said it filed a motion in Federal District Court in the Northern District of California to prevent the disclosure of the identities of 14 people who criticized online health care-equipment store Medinex Systems in a Yahoo message board.

The company has sued anonymous posters who've adopted names including "zippershut" and "dotcommie2000," claiming their critical comments amounted to defamation and interference with its business. Medinex stock has traded below $1 for more than six months, and the Nasdaq Stock Market has notified the company that it faces delisting. Medinex has issued civil subpoenas seeking to unmask the critics, some of whom identified themselves as shareholders or employees.

The number of so-called John Doe actions has increased in recent months, as more companies are seeking to unveil the identities of their online critics.

"This case is another in a disturbing trend where failing dot-com companies seek to silence their critics using the civil delivery process," Lauren Gelman, the EFF's public policy director, said in a statement. San Francisco law firm Farella Braun & Martel is joining EFF in defending the John Does.

The EFF is fresh off a win in Seattle, where a U.S. district judge shot down's request to unmask critics who had posted to an InfoSpace message board.

So far, judges have been divided in their decisions on whether message-board companies must reveal the identities of online posters. Because the cases are so new, no precedent-setting decision yet exists. The EFF and other free-speech advocates believe cases filed in the West are particularly important because a decision by the area's appeals court could set a precedent in a region that's home to some of the most popular message-board companies, including Web portal Yahoo and software giant Microsoft.