Anonymity a Web Right, Groups Claim
A private fire and ambulance service named
The cyber-rights group
Rural/Metro, a publicly traded company with operations in the United States and Latin America, wants to know the individuals' real-world names and those of two others known online as "hotmedicaz" and "smilelikeyoulikeit."
"It is our view that this is not about First Amendment rights or free speech," says Francis Torrence, Rural/Metro's attorney. "This is a case about people making false statements and leaking confidential information."
Yahoo, traditionally, will hand over the names of its users if it is
subpoenaed, says Lauren Gelman, EFF's director of public policy. Yahoo could
not be reached for comment, despite repeated attempts. However, if another
party steps in and seeks to quash a subpoena, Yahoo will not disclose the
information until legal proceedings are completed and the court requires the
company to release the names, she says. (The company was
First Amendment rights are at the heart of matter of the Rural/Metro case, Gelman says. It is important that people can speak anonymously on issues that they otherwise would not say anything about.
Gelman compares it to journalists not having to disclose anonymous sources for stories. Users should not be able to libel other individuals on message boards, but they should be able to express anonymously such things as their dislike for a workplace and the reasons why, she says.
"Just because we are talking about the Internet does not mean we should lose the right to speak anonymously," Gelman adds.
In its court filing Tuesday, the EFF and The Liberty Project state that Rural/Metro must show substantial evidence that the published statements are both factually untrue and defamatory, that reasonable efforts to discover the information from alternative sources was made, and that knowledge of the identity of the informant is necessary for proper preparation and presentation of the case.
The EFF provided IDG News Service with the messages posted by "iamcashman2525" and "southernemptyall" about Rural/Metro. The two individuals posted approximately 23 messages between October and late December 2000. The subpoena was issued against Yahoo on December 22, according to the complaint.
The comments talk about administrative changes, financial irregularities, insider personnel information, and dislike for Rural/Metro's top executive. There are also clippings from some newspaper articles about the company.
Rural/Metro filed suit against "John and Jane Does," alleging that around September 2000 the four individuals began posting "false, misleading and/or deceptive information about Rural/Metro's business and its key employees."
The messages represent or contain information that suggests the posters may be existing or former employees of the company or have access to confidential business information, according to the complaint.
"The Does' statements on the Internet are likely to cause confusion, mistake, or to deceive," the complaint states. "The Does' activities have caused and will cause further irreparable injury to Rural/Metro and unless such activities are restrained by this court, they will be continued."
Attorney Torrence said Rural/Metro had no comment on the specific claims made online by the four individuals. He says Rural/Metro will file more specifics with the court soon, and the court will review the subpoena on March 12.
The EFF has participated in two similar cases in which individuals tried to unmask the identity of online users, Gelman says. There is some evidence that it is becoming a more common request of lawyers in the discovery phase of litigation.
"I have spoken to at least 20 or 30 people (who have dealt with this) and I have seen subpoenas that have hundreds of names on them," she says.
In civil cases,
"We never reveal any kind of information unless we receive a valid court order or subpoena," Graham says.
AOL Time Warner receives hundreds of subpoenas or search warrants for user information each year, he says. The numbers have stayed constant and represent a "very, very small, minuscule" portion of its 27 million members, Graham adds.