In a move some are calling the height of chutzpah, a plaintiff identified only as an Indianapolis-based "Anonymous Publicly Traded Company" sued AOL Time Warner's America Online in an attempt to learn the names of five people who posted criticism of the company on AOL message boards. The company said the John Does posted "defamatory and disparaging material misrepresentations."
However, a Virginia appeals court shot down the company's attempt to remain anonymous. Two weeks ago, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the company must reveal its identity if it wants to proceed with the suit, overturning a lower-court ruling that had allowed the case to progress.
In issuing its ruling, the court noted that some plaintiffs have been allowed to proceed anonymously, but only in cases that involve the threat of physical harm or a social stigma such as abortion or illegitimate children.
"A common thread throughout these decisions is that the likelihood of the plaintiff suffering some embarrassment or economic harm is not enough by itself to permit anonymity," the opinion said. The company in this case had claimed that revealing its identity would cause economic hardship.
The number of companies seeking to silence critics by going after anonymous online posters has been steadily increasing as message boards have grown more popular, but this is believed to be one of the first cases in which a company seeking to unveil the names of posters is trying to keep its own name under wraps.
So far, the courts have been split over whether companies running the largest message boards--including AOL and Yahoo--must unmask the identities of anonymous posters. Judges have sided with free-speech advocates in some cases and companies in others.
However, as the cases have become increasingly prevalent, more groups are jumping into the debate. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have signed on to John Doe cases in efforts to preserve online anonymity, criticizing attempts to force message board hosts to name posters.
Two weeks ago, AOL became the first message board company to use a legal filing to criticize attempts to force it to squeal on posters. In a brief filed in a separate John Doe case, AOL argued that such lawsuits threaten free speech on the Web.
AOL did not immediately return calls seeking comment.