After seeing their idea for an online book distribution service falter, Nigel Cannings and Brian Dodsworth have gone into business selling anonymous email services for ex-girlfriends, ex-boyfriends, disgruntled employees, targets of unwanted sexual advances and ticked-off people everywhere.
"Hands off!" reads one message on their recently launched Poison Pen Web site. "What do you think you are doing? Why can't you just keep you hands to yourself, buddy?! Maybe you're not getting enough yourself, huh?! Not everyone wants to have your sweaty paws all over them. So back off!!!"
The site charges $8 to salve the slights and indignities of life through delivery of private, explicit words to the enemy. But not too explicit: Profanity and vulgarity are strictly prohibited.
"We've all been in situations of feeling inferior," Cannings said. "This gives people a chance to turn it back. But we want to do it in a way that's not too offensive."
Some might say that takes away the fun, especially on the Web, where anonymous posters have taken the art of gratuitous mudslinging to new heights in the pointless exchanges of insults known as "flame wars." But you can't be too careful on the Net these days, especially where anonymity is concerned.
First amendment lawyers in the United States say Poison Pen's service is not likely to run afoul of libel and defamation laws because the messages are not published in public.
But Poison Pen might find it difficult to keep its customers' identities secret if push comes to shove. Online services in the United States have been flooded with subpoenas demanding to unmask the identities of anonymous posters--a request that companies sometimes honor.
Earlier this year, for example, Raytheon subpoenaed Yahoo in an attempt to get the online giant to hand over information about members who had allegedly posted confidential information about Raytheon in Yahoo chat rooms.
"It's about even money" that someone's anonymity on the Net will survive a court challenge, said Karl Olson, a partner in the San Francisco law firm of Levy Ram & Olson. "I wonder if these Poison Pen folks are really knowledgeable about what's happening in the U.S. on this front."