Guest column: Responsible anonymity and John Doe

Do you have a right to anonymity on the Internet? Most people would say "yes" automatically, but what are the limits of your right to stay invisible? If we're talking about an individual whom a big company has set its sights on, then most people will side with the individual. They'll invoke the mystical totems of the right of free speech and the tyranny of big business.

While defending the little guy is a noble ideal, the reality is that sometimes the little guy is being a jerk.

This is highlighted by a drama being played out at the moment in the case of Xircom v. John Doe. In case you don't know the players, Xircom is a company that makes Ethernet and modem PC cards, and John Doe is ... well, there's the problem.

It seems that John Doe, going under the alias of "The_View_ From_Inside," posted three messages on the Xircom investors forum on Yahoo that weren't exactly complimentary to Xircom. Xircom subsequently took Yahoo to court to force the company to identify the pseudonymous critic.

I've seen a number of discussions on the matter. The tone generally has been that Xircom is going after the critic out of outrage and because it can. Even the Los Angeles Times chose the approach of big bad company against the little guy in a piece titled "'John Doe' Suit Threatens Internet Users' Anonymity."

"An increasing number of 'John Doe' lawsuits are being filed by companies that have been the targets of anonymous defamatory opinions posted on the Internet. These lawsuits force ISPs to reveal the identities of the online critics. The companies say that lawsuits are one of their few options in the fight against defamation, but critics contend that the tactic jeopardizes online anonymity," the story states.

From the tone of that piece, you might think John Doe had right on his side, but the truth is somewhat different. The postings on Yahoo aren't just from any old critic, they are written by someone claiming to either work, or to have worked, at Xircom.

I talked to Xircom's legal counsel about the issue, and the company's concern is that the anonymous poster would, by Xircom's standard employee contract, be in violation of clauses concerning the publishing and dissemination of company confidential information. Consequently, Xircom wants justice.

I would say that isn't an unreasonable position for Xircom to take. And the fact that the critic is hiding behind anonymity (with a lot of legal assistance) and refuses to confirm or deny whether he has ever been a Xircom employee makes him look rather guilty.

What's interesting about the Internet community's response to the issue is the assumption that the big bad company is trying to shut down a whistleblower. Yet, if you read the critic's comments, there's no whistle-blowing going on but rather an attack on the firm's management, products and business practices.

And if the critic had real points to make, he wouldn't be hiding behind anonymity. But the Internet community and the press seem to be happy not knowing the facts; they automatically side with the little guy and worry about free speech and the squelching of whistleblowers.

Along with the rest of the Internet, I'm all for protecting the rights and freedoms of the individual. But the idea of saying what you please about whom you please in the world's most public forum makes the use of anonymity unacceptable.

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