Anonymous Surfer Sues Yahoo Over Privacy

WASHINGTON (05/12/2000) - An anonymous Internet user filed a civil lawsuit in a Los Angeles federal court yesterday against Yahoo Inc., charging the company with violating U.S. federal and state law, as well as the company's own privacy policy. The plaintiff is accusing Yahoo of handing over his personal information, without prior notice, to another company that was suing him for defamation.

Attorneys for "Aquacool_2000," also named "John Doe" in the lawsuit, are charging that Yahoo is guilty of invasion of privacy, violations of the U.S. and California state constitutions, breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation and false advertising. The suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

The lawsuit alleges that Yahoo gave the plaintiff's personal information to AnswerThink Consulting Group, an online consulting group based in Miami, Florida, in response to a subpoena, without first notifying Doe that it was doing so. Yahoo received the subpoena after AnswerThink filed a defamation suit against Aquacool_2000 in a Florida federal court in February. According to the suit filed yesterday, Aquacool_2000 had posted derogatory comments about AnswerThink on a company message board maintained by Yahoo. An AnswerThink spokeswoman didn't return a telephone call seeking comment.

"Yahoo takes privacy very seriously and continually strives to be a leader in the industry by complying with privacy best practices," said a Yahoo spokesperson. "Yahoo does not comment on pending legal matters or specific message-board postings."

Privacy advocates say Yahoo regularly receives such subpoenas and automatically complies with them without first notifying its users. In a March 31 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Yahoo revealed that it was the subject of a U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation of whether the company was complying with federal consumer protection regulations.

Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) General Counsel David Sobel said Yahoo receives subpoenas that are "open-ended fishing expeditions" and obeys them without evaluating their validity.

"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," said EPIC and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a statement.

According to a press release issued on Doe's behalf, Doe is a former AnswerThink employee who was fired in March and denied a "significant cash payment and a large block of stock" after AnswerThink learned his real identity from Yahoo.

The lawsuit alleges that Yahoo is violating anonymous-speech rights protected by the First Amendment and promulgated by the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as protections afforded by the California state constitution and Yahoo's own privacy policy. The policy says that "as a general rule," Yahoo doesn't disclose personal information without notice, but makes an exception for "special circumstances, such as when we believe in good faith that the law requires it."

"Yahoo is aware that executives at publicly owned companies that are featured on the message boards frequently take umbrage at the critical comments posted about 'their' companies," said attorneys for Doe in the suit. "With sensitive egos and money to burn, such companies often file a lawsuit... so that the company's curiosity and desire to silence the member can be satiated."

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