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Online anonymity wins again

A California court refuses to require Yahoo to turn over the names of anonymous online critics.

In another victory for online anonymity, a California judge has ruled that Yahoo does not need to reveal the identities of some message board posters.

In a ruling Friday, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Neil Cabrinha said online critics who posted messages about Oklahoma-based legal company Pre-Paid Legal Services can keep their names under wraps.

Pre-Paid said it needed to know the identities of the posters to determine whether they had revealed company trade secrets. However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represented the posters, argued they were merely exercising their First Amendment right to criticize the company, and Pre-Paid was trying to silence its detractors by bullying them. According to the EFF, Cabrinha ruled from the bench during a hearing Friday to quash a subpoena requiring Yahoo to turn over the names.

"This is a great victory for anonymous speech," EFF attorney Lee Tien said in a statement. "I believe Judge Cabrinha's ruling will signal to other companies that judges will not permit corporate executives to abuse the courts in ferreting out their critics."

Pre-Paid did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As people increasingly turn to message boards to criticize companies, lawsuits that seek to unmask posters are becoming popular. Although several judges have ordered message board companies to reveal the names of those who visit their sites, other rulings have favored anonymity.

In April, a U.S. district judge in Washington state refused to order Web service InfoSpace to reveal the names of nearly a dozen anonymous posters. And in New Jersey, a state appellate court ruled last month that online posters can keep their identities secret in most cases.

However, such rulings aren't stopping people and companies from filing similar suits. Just last week, two council members in Emerson, New Jersey, sued a message board operator and some online posters for allegedly posting defamatory statements.

Supporters of online anonymity are cheering the ruling in the Pre-Paid case, saying it could eventually outline how anonymous critics are treated in the state of California, which is home to several companies that run message boards, including Yahoo.