Yahoo! Lawsuit Strikes an Important Blow For Internet Privacy and Free Speech

May 11, 2000 12:00 am

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Thursday, May 11, 2000

NEW YORK–A federal lawsuit filed today in California could establish important protections for Internet privacy and anonymity, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

The suit, filed against Yahoo! by a user of the service’s popular financial message boards, challenges the company’s practice of disclosing a user’s personal information to third parties without prior notice to the user.

Privacy and free speech advocates, including EPIC and the ACLU, have criticized Yahoo!’s policy on the ground that Internet users have a right to communicate anonymously and usually do so for valid reasons.

Over the past year, Yahoo! has been inundated with subpoenas issued by companies seeking the identities of individuals anonymously posting information critical of the firms and their executives.

“The right to anonymous speech should not be breached so easily,” said Chris Hansen, a national ACLU lawyer who specializes in Internet speech.

Without notifying the targeted users, and without assessing the validity of the legal claims underlying the subpoenas, Yahoo! systematically discloses identifying information such as users’ names, e-mail addresses and Internet protocol addresses. Yahoo! is unique among major online companies in its refusal to notify its users of such subpoenas and provide them with an opportunity to challenge the information requests.

Hansen said that the ACLU favors at least two legal protections for anonymous chatters. “Any complaint filed in court against an unknown Internet defendant should include specifics of the allegedly objectionable postings,” he said.

“Also, a judge should not allow a lawyer to issue subpoenas in these cases without requiring that the Internet service provider notify the potential defendant that someone is seeking information about him and giving him an opportunity to enter court to protect his anonymity.”

According to David L. Sobel, EPIC’s General Counsel, “online anonymity plays a critical role in fostering free expression on the Internet, and has clearly contributed to the popularity of the medium.”

“The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that anonymity is a constitutional right, but practices such as those of Yahoo! may make that right illusory online,” he added.

The lawsuit was filed in United States District Court in Los Angeles by “Aquacool_2000,” a pseudonymous Yahoo! user whose personal information was disclosed to AnswerThink Consulting Group, Inc., a publicly held company.

A copy of the lawsuit (in PDF) is available at:

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