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Public Citizen Files Motion to Protect Identity of Anonymous Web Site Operator

Nov. 21, 2006 

Public Citizen Files Motion to Protect Identity of Anonymous Web Site Operator

Massachusetts Real Estate Developer Should Not Be Allowed to Unmask Online Critic in Arizona Court

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An Arizona court should not allow a target of online criticism to use a lawsuit to obtain the identity of his Internet critic when an almost identical lawsuit has already been dismissed by another court, according to a motion filed late yesterday by Public Citizen. The motion asks the Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County to quash the subpoena of a Massachusetts real estate developer against the operator of a critical Web site and to dismiss charges violating the site operator’s First Amendment rights.

The case, filed in the Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County, is the second attempt by plaintiff Paul McMann to obtain a subpoena to learn the identity of defendant John Doe, an anonymous Web critic who maintains a site devoted to McMann at http://www.paulmcmann.com/. Doe created the site after a negative business transaction with McMann and invited others to share similar experiences by posting on a message board. The site includes a warning about doing business with McMann and a list of businesses registered in his name.

“This case demonstrates how fragile our privacy on the Internet really is,” said Greg Beck, an attorney for Public Citizen Litigation Group. “Anyone who files a meritless complaint can get a subpoena from a court to reveal your identity, even if the complaint has already been rejected by another court.”

The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in October dismissed McMann’s first attempt to learn Doe’s identity, finding that he did not have any legitimate claim for defamation, invasion of privacy or copyright infringement. McMann filed the new complaint in Arizona six days later, even though the anonymous critic has no connection with the state. McMann omitted from his complaint all mention of the prior lawsuit.

Seeking to unveil Doe’s identity, McMann sent a subpoena to GoDaddy and Domains by Proxy, the companies responsible for registering and hosting the Web site. McMann and his counsel made no attempt to notify Doe of the case against him, and Doe did not learn about the pending subpoena until GoDaddy contacted him Nov. 10 by email.

Even though Domains by Proxy is designed to protect the privacy of Web site owners, its parent company GoDaddy told Doe he had only three business days to file a motion to quash the subpoena or it would release his identifying information. This required Doe to find and hire a lawyer in Arizona, prepare the motion and notify GoDaddy within that period of time. GoDaddy also told Doe that it would charge his account for releasing the information and even refused to provide Doe with a copy of the subpoena he was objecting to.

On behalf of Doe, Public Citizen negotiated an extension from GoDaddy until Nov. 21 and filed the motion to quash the subpoena. Phoenix attorney Louis Hoffman of Hoffman & Zur is local counsel for Doe.

To read Public Citizen’s motion, click here.

Public Citizen has a record of defending the First Amendment rights of Internet users. To learn more, click here.