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Anonymous corporation not allowed to demand user names

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         VIRGINIA         Libel         Mar 5, 2001    

Anonymous corporation not allowed to demand user names

  • A company seeking to compel America Online to disclose names of certain anonymous users may not proceed anonymously, the state high court found.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled on March 2 that a Delaware corporation may not proceed anonymously in seeking to unmask the identities of five anonymous Internet speakers.

The corporation, “Anonymous Publicly Traded Company” or “APTC” for purposes of the case, sought the identity of five America Online users in relation to statements made about the company in Internet chat rooms.

APTC insisted that it had to proceed anonymously “because disclosure of its true company name will cause it irreparable harm.”

APTC filed an anonymous lawsuit in Indiana, its place of business, in 1999 against John Does 1-5, who it believed were current or former employees. The Indiana court permitted APTC to seek a subpoena from a court in Virginia, where AOL is located, and allowed APTC to proceed anonymously until the identities of the speakers could be discovered. AOL moved to quash the subpoenas in Indiana, but the motion was denied.

AOL then appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, asking it to overturn the issuance of the subpoenas by the Virginia clerk of court.

The state Supreme Court made its determination under the Uniform Foreign Depositions Act, adopted by many states including Indiana and Virginia. The act requires a state to respect the depositions and document production orders of another.

The Virginia high court held that although normally the Indiana trial court order should be respected, the procedural requirements may not have been met in the Indiana case. For example, the trial court did not show that it had personal jurisdiction over the anonymous defendants. The Indiana court also did not hold a hearing or take evidence on why APTC should be allowed to proceed anonymously, the Virginia court found.

The Virginia court noted that although fear of economic harm may be one factor in considering whether a corporation may proceed anonymously, it was insufficient by itself and APTC did not meet its burden of showing why anonymity was warranted in this case.

(America Online, Inc. v. Anonymously Publicly Traded Company) DB

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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