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Ruling keeps online critics anonymous

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         NEW JERSEY         Libel         Dec 5, 2000    

Ruling keeps online critics anonymous

  • A company loses in its attempt to force an Internet service provider to reveal the names of its users who authored comments critical of the company.

A Morris County Superior Court judge broke from the recent trend in decision involving online critics by denying a corporation’s request to publicly identify two anonymous individuals.

Judge Kenneth MacKenzie on Nov. 28 sided with the defendants in a case filed by Dendrite International, a Morristown, N.J., company that makes sales and marketing software for the pharmaceutical industry. Dendrite alleged the two John Does, known only by their online handles, “xxplrr” and “gacbar,” posted false and confidential information about the company sporadically during a three-week period from March to April.

In order to identify the John Does, Dendrite sought the court’s permission to subpoena Yahoo, which had the information necessary to identify them. MacKenzie denied the request in a 23-page ruling, prefacing his analysis with the understanding that a person seeking the names first exhaust the traditional avenues of identification.

In previous cases involving Yahoo users, when subpoenaed, the Internet service provider has divulged the real names of its users without notifying them. According to a Star-Ledger article on Nov. 29, the company abandoned this practice in April and now notifies users with an email message and gives them 15 days to object to the subpoena.

The court found that the false posting were defamatory in nature, but that Dendrite failed to prove actual harm to its reputation, and therefore a subsequent claim would fail. Also, the court voiced reluctance to grant relief to Dendrite because it did little, on its own, to identify the John Does. In the end, the court found, Dendrite would not succeed on a defamation claim, and did not warrant revealing the two individuals.

Other courts have split when faced with similar requests to unmask anonymous online critics.

On Nov. 15, a Pittsburgh trial judge ruled that the identity of an Internet author would remain anonymous, except from the person who sued for defamation. Allegheny County Superior Court judge Joan Melvin sued to discover someone’s identity after a statement appeared on an America Online member’s webpage suggesting Melvin lobbied Gov. Tom Ridge on behalf of a local attorney seeking a judicial appointment.

One month earlier in Florida, a court of appeals removed a stay, thereby allowing a former marine company chief executive to subpoena Yahoo and AOL for the names of eight anonymous message board participants he accused of libel.

(Dendrite International v. John Does; Counsel: Randy Pearce, Pearce Fleisig, Hackensack) SM

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