Are Chat Rooms Really Anonymous?

SAN FRANCISCO (05/12/2000) - A lawsuit filed by a chat room participant against Yahoo Inc. raises questions of responsibility by chat room participants and their host sites.

John Doe, also known as Aquacool_2000, is suing Yahoo for disclosing personal information to a third party: his then-employer. Yahoo identified Doe in response to a subpoena from AnswerThink, a Web consulting firm. But Yahoo didn't tell Doe, and Answerthink fired him.

AnswerThink first raised legal weapons against 12 John Does in February, for their negative comments posted in a Yahoo chat room. The complaint claims defamation and breach of contract. Then AnswerThink subpoenaed Yahoo.

Informed Consent

Freedom of speech advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center concede that Yahoo had to supply the information. But they say Yahoo should have warned John Doe.

The law requires that Yahoo release information when subpoenaed, says David Sobel, EPIC's general counsel. "But they can notify the user so he can question the legitimacy of the subpoena," Sobel says.

The Yahoo suit also raises a question of the legitimacy of the increasing number of "cybersmear" cases, suits that companies file over negative comments in a chat room.

"The number of these lawsuits is exploding," Sobel says. They're easy suits to pursue, but it's unclear how legitimate they are, he adds.

"Yahoo routinely releases users' personal identifying information to companies and gives no notice to users," says Megan Gray, a Baker & Hostetler attorney representing the plaintiff. "They're not taking the minimum step of informing John Doe, who could then defend himself and his rights."

If a dot-com tells you of a subpoena for your identity, you can go to court-- remaining anonymous through an attorney--and move to quash the subpoena, Gray says. "It's usually effective. I've done two myself and won both times."

Privacy Loopholes Remain

Yahoo's privacy policy states that it "may disclose account information in special cases when we have reason to believe that disclosing this information is necessary to identify, contact, or bring legal action against someone who may be violating Yahoo's Terms of Service or may be causing injury to or interference with [others]." In April, Yahoo amended the policy, promising to notify the individual.

America Online came under similar fire for privacy violations when it gave the U.S. Navy the identity of a gay chat room participant.

AOL's general practice is to notify customers when it is subpoenaed, Sobel says. "But AOL does not in writing guarantee they'll provide notice."

Yahoo could have questioned the subpoena, or at least alerted John Doe so he could have challenged it, Gray says. Instead, John Doe lost his job and stock options. AnswerThink declines to comment on personnel or litigation.

Yahoo has 24 days to respond to the suit. But the ongoing controversy should remind chatters they may be accountable for what they post.

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