Many people have heard of companies suing chat room hosts to learn the identities of their critics, but what happens when the company
filing the case wants to remain anonymous?
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
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
"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
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.