Internet Critic of Atlanta Company Should Remain Anonymous, Public Citizen Tells Court

Dec. 15, 2000

Internet Critic of Atlanta Company Should Remain Anonymous, Public Citizen Tells Court

Identities of People Who Post Anonymous Messages on the Internet
Should Not Be Disclosed

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A Georgia court should block an Internet consulting firm s efforts to learn the identity of a man who anonymously posted comments about the company on an Internet message board, Public Citizen has told the court.

The firm, Atlanta-based iXL Enterprises, sued to learn the name of an individual who posted comments on a Yahoo! message board about the reasons for the company s declining fortunes. After filing its lawsuit, iXL obtained a subpoena that it served to Yahoo! to learn the person s name. Public Citizen is representing the individual, identified in court papers only as John Doe.

iXL s efforts violate the man s First Amendment rights, as well as his privacy rights under the Georgia Constitution, Public Citizen said in a brief filed on Monday in the Superior Court of Fulton County.

“iXL is attempting to use the court as a private detective service, to locate a member of the public who has engaged in speech critical of the company” said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney for Public Citizen Litigation Group, which is representing Doe. “It s a blatant attempt not only to violate this man s rights but to intimidate other people from expressing themselves freely.”

In its complaint, iXL alleges that Doe is an iXL employee and that his postings violated an employment agreement. However, Doe is not an iXL employee and has produced evidence to prove it, the brief says. iXL also claims that Doe made false and derogatory statements containing confidential business information, but the company has not said what those statements were. Nor did the company say that Doe s comments damaged the company in any way. Further, company officers had adequate chance to post their own rebuttal to the man s comments, Public Citizen said.

The Internet, Levy argued, is “a forum for public discourse on any subject. People have a right to participate in public debates, and that s just what these message boards are — ongoing public debates.”

Doe posted a number of messages on the iXL chat site, some of which were critical of iXL or staff members. Others were complimentary, but none were “even arguably defamatory,” the brief states. When Yahoo! contacted Doe to alert him to iXL s court action, Doe contacted the company s lawyer and was promised that iXL would drop its court action if Doe could prove he was not an iXL employee. Levy, of Public Citizen, followed up with the company s attorney, but he has refused to discuss the matter, claiming “the existence of other pressing business,” the brief states.

Doe is concerned that the lawsuit could cost him his current job if his employer were to learn about it, the brief states.

Public Citizen filed the brief because it champions free speech rights. The non-profit consumer advocacy organization has defended the right of anonymity in several similar suits, including one filed by Thomas & Betts Corporation, a Tennessee manufacturer of electrical components, and another filed by Dendrite International, a New Jersey supplier of sales force software products and support services for the pharmaceutical industry.

The Tennessee company dismissed the case with a statement that it did not want to chill free speech on the Internet. In the New Jersey case, a court in November rejected the company s attempt to discover the identities of the anonymous Internet message posters, saying the company had failed to meet the stringent legal standards required for them to obtain those names.

Also representing Doe in the current case are Jeffrey D. Sodko and Robert S. Giolito of Stanford, Fagan & Giolito in Atlanta.

The court decision in the Dendrite case is posted at https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/dendrite.pdf