The contractor, Raytheon, sued the 21 "John Does" in February after their posts appeared in chat rooms, including those on Yahoo. Most of the comments appeared to be little more than water-cooler talk among employees, according to purported transcripts of the offending posts.
But sprinkled into the banter are discussions of confidential information, including a new labor contract the company was supposedly negotiating with a union, company projections for its fourth-quarter earnings, and outside firms likely to win contracts with Raytheon.
Since filing suit in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, Raytheon has subpoenaed Yahoo, a spokeswoman for the portal giant said. A Raytheon spokesman declined to discuss the subpoena, but it appears to be aimed at identifying those posting the allegedly confidential information.
The incident highlights the fine line between protecting free speech online and protecting a company's valuable trade secrets.
"It's not an easy line to draw," said Neil Shapiro, a lawyer at Landels Ripley & Diamond specializing in First Amendment issues. "Certainly, there's a right to protect proprietary trade secrets or equivalent information, and an employee has no right to distribute" such information. At the same time, he added, employees who blow the whistle on a defective product or improper behavior should not be punished for doing so.
"Raytheon is committed to protecting its proprietary information, and that's why we filed the suit," company spokesman David Polk said. He added that all employees sign a contract agreeing not to disclose proprietary information such as financial projections, possible acquisitions, and employee information.
The incident is a reminder that people who post anonymous messages online enjoy no promise of absolute confidentiality. Like most portals, Yahoo promises not to reveal information about its users except when required by law to do so.
Diane Hunt, a Yahoo spokeswoman, said users are warned in advance that the company will turn over names, email addresses, or other identifying information when served with a subpoena. "It's not a good assumption to think that you could never be identified" when posting to a chat room, she said.
The Securities and Exchange Commission and other regulatory agencies also have taken steps to police chat rooms.