Brief filed to reveal identity of Netizen

The Electronic Frontier Foundation weighs in on the right of Internet message board posters to express their views anonymously

Two civil liberties groups have struck the latest blows in the battle over the rights of users to post anonymous messages on the Web.

On 13 October, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Citizen filed a brief on behalf of an individual, known as "Jane Doe," who posted comments to a Yahoo! message board that an AK Steel (formerly Armco Steel) executive said were disparaging, threatening, and defamatory.

AK Steel general counsel and executive vice president John Hritz subsequently filed a petition for discovery in the state of Ohio against Jane Doe. He used the petition to issue subpoenas to Yahoo! and America Online, requesting that they be required to reveal Doe's identity.

On Friday, the EFF and Public Citizen filed a motion to quash the subpoena presented to AOL. The groups argued that Hritz had not proved that the statements made by Doe were inflammatory.

Public Citizen's litigation unit is planning to argue the case on behalf of Doe, in conjunction with lawyers from the Washington-based firm of Hogan and Hartson and the firm of Calfee, Halter & Griswold in Ohio.

Public Citizen staff attorney Paul Levy said he expected the case to be heard in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Opening arguments are scheduled for 9 November.

Levy characterised the battle as a "fight over electronic documents".

In his prepared statement, Levy called the lawsuit "a blatant attempt to intimidate all of AK Steel's employees and other members of the public. Hritz is, in effect, warning workers not to exercise their First Amendment right to speak freely about the company on the Internet."

Lawsuits over users' rights to maintain online anonymity appear to be proliferating.

Public Citizen recently represented an employee of Thomas & Betts who posted anonymous messages on a Yahoo! message board about the electrical manufacturing company. According to Public Citizen, the company backed down and dismissed the lawsuit, claiming it did not want to chill free speech on the Internet.

In May, a Yahoo! financial message board user who had been sued for defamation turned around and filed suit in California against Yahoo! for turning over personal information without permission. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Centre sided with the user, known as Aquacool_200.

And in March 1999, defence contractor Raytheon sued a group of 21 anonymous message board posters for allegedly divulging trade secrets. The company sought the disclosure of the employees' identities to determine whether they actually worked for Raytheon.

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