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ACLU: Don't rat out your customers

Civil liberties groups urge Internet service providers to stand up to companies trying to unmask the identities of people who anonymously air their dirty laundry.

A clutch of civil liberties groups is asking small Internet service providers to get a backbone and stand up to companies seeking to unveil anonymous critics.

A group including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Center for Democracy and Technology is urging ISPs to alert customers when they are the targets of so-called John Doe legal actions, which try to unmask the identities of people who anonymously air their companies' dirty laundry. The group has sent letters to more than 100 ISPs, asking them to adopt a written policy promising to let customers know if they're targets.

Several ISPs, including major companies such as Microsoft, EarthLink, Yahoo and America Online, already notify customers who are the target of such actions, allowing individuals to decide for themselves how to respond to the threats. However, the groups warn, there is no law requiring notification, meaning some ISPs turn over the identities of the anonymous poster shortly after receiving a subpoena.

Often, companies that issue such legal threats don't follow up with legal action and are merely trying to learn the identities of critics, a practice roundly condemned by civil liberties groups.

"Unless online anonymity is protected, whistleblowers who want to criticize their employers, parents who want to criticize principal of their children's school--and many others--may be afraid to speak out," Ann Beeson, staff counsel for the ACLU, said in a statement. "That would be a loss for our country."

In recent years, message boards have become a popular forum for employees and others to rant about a company's performance and internal politics, prompting targets of such criticism to issue legal threats. So far, courts have been mixed about whether the ISPs are required to reveal the identities of the critics.