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Judge orders Web site to unmask anonymous posters in libel case

February 10, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Topix: We take privacy seriously

Topix CEO Chris Tolles said that his company had received the subpoena and was currently figuring out what exactly it needed to do. "We are not there yet, since it was a large request with lots of detail," Tolles said in an e-mail. "We prefer to make sure requests are clear and specific and not overly broad."

Tolles said that Topix takes privacy issues very seriously and that his firm would not "simply hand over all of our records" without a review of the demand by its lawyers and a discussion of the issue with the court.

At the same time, though, Tolles said libel was a legitimate concern, and that Topix will cooperate with the courts when a valid request for information was made. Topix is reviewing the subpoena to make sure the request is "above a reasonable threshold," he said.

Reminder: Anonymity is not immunity

The lawsuit serves as reminder that online anonymity does not automatically provide immunity against libel charges, said Eugene Volokh, professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles' School of Law.

While the First Amendment provides protections for free speech, "not all categories of speech are protected, libel for instance," Volokh said.

"While people have the right to say things anonymously, if someone sues them of libel, then a court may order others to turn over information about them," Volokh said. "The First Amendment does not prevent the use of judicial processes to uncover the identities of speakers" in cases where libel is suspected.

It is not the first time a court has ordered a Web site or service provider to hand over identifying information on anonymous posters.

The most high-profile example involves two female Yale Law School students who were the targets of a similar flood of highly personal anonymous attacks posted on the AutoAdmit college bulletin board in 2005.

In January 2008, the students got a Connecticut district court judge to issue a subpoena asking the operator of AutoAdmit to hand over any information it had to help reveal the true identities of 39 posters who used pseudonyms on the board.

The subpoena resulted in the lawyers for the two students unmasking the identities of several of the anonymous users behind the postings.

In a blog post related to the case, Volokh noted that while some of the comments against the two students may well have been libelous, some of the statements could also be interpreted as threats of rape and other physical harm against the two.

In similar cases, such comments, whether anonymous or not, "may be constitutionally unprotected, and there would be no bar to tort liability for them," Volokh noted in the blog post.

Read more about Internet in Computerworld's Internet Topic Center.

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