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Free speech advocates push for anonymous chat rooms

While companies are trying to silence message board posters, two free speech groups are asking a court to keep the names of an ambulance company's online critics under wraps.

In an effort to preserve Internet anonymity, two free speech groups are asking a court to keep the names of an ambulance company's online critics under wraps.

The filing, submitted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Liberty Project, comes as companies increasingly are trying to silence critics by seeking the identities of message board posters.

In this case, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based ambulance company Rural/Metro has subpoenaed Yahoo, asking the portal to reveal the names of four people who took to message boards to criticize it. In its complaint, Rural/Metro accused the posters, who are called John Does in the suit, of posting false and misleading information. The company also says the anonymous critics may reveal trade secrets at some point in the future.

However, the EFF, which represents two of the John Does, argues that the right to speak anonymously is constitutionally protected and should not be given up just because companies want to unmask critics. Furthermore, the groups are urging the court to first decide whether the plaintiff has a claim and then balance the potential harm to the anonymous speakers with the need to know their identity.

It's the third John Doe case that the EFF has jumped on, and it could turn out to be a particularly important one. The case has been filed in federal court in San Jose, in the same district where Yahoo is located. Thus, the outcome of this case could affect many others that involve Yahoo, one of the largest message board hosts.

The number of John Doe cases is on the rise as more people are hopping onto message boards to praise or curse companies. So far, the outcomes have been mixed. In some cases, judges have forced anonymous critics to reveal their identities. But in others, judges have sided with free speech advocates. However, none of the suits have made their way through the complete court process to set a precedent, so the legal concepts surrounding online anonymity are still being tested.

EFF Director of Public Policy Lauren Gelman said she thinks companies are filing more of these cases because they're shocked at the way message boards have become freewheeling forums.

"Companies are used to having their entire public image crafted by their PR department," Gelman said. "They want to regain control. It's all about control."

She said that many John Does reveal their identities immediately upon getting a letter--sometimes even before their cases hit courts--either because they are scared and buckle under pressure or because in the course of calling a law firm that's sent a threatening letter, they inadvertently give out their names.

"It works that way because most people have no concept of what their legal rights are," Gelman said. "People have the freedom to say what they want," as long as it's not libelous or a trade secret.