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Beware of Email Privacy Limits

Legal experts and observers are warning online service users and corporate email users to be aware of the increasingly fragile state of privacy protection rights. In two recent cases, online service providers turned over subscriber names, phone numbers, and other info to lawyers for parties suing for defamation.

In other words, that clever alias you use to send and receive email may not be so anonymous after all. In one case, an America Online subscriber calling herself "Jenny TRR" posted a negative message concerning a Caribbean resort to a service bulletin board. The resort sent out lawyers, who demanded that AOL turn over the real name of Jenny TRR. AOL complied. In that email message, Jenny TRR said her diving instructor at the resort was "stoned" and described him by saying "he's the only white instructor."

Services are more likely to comply with such demands in civil cases since subscribers are warned up front that their mail is being monitored. In another case involving AOL, the service provider delivered the names and addresses of 68 subscribers that multimedia software developer Macromedia wanted to investigate for possible copyright infringement. Macromedia alleges that subscribers pirated and distributed copies of its software using an AOL bulletin board.