Court Protects Anonymous Poster’s Identity

A California appeals court has ruled an anonymous Internet poster does not have to reveal his (or her!) identity after being sued by a former executive at Florida’s SFBC International for “scathing verbal attacks.” SFBC runs human clinical trials for experimental medications, and has had a history of recent problems, including a tuberculosis outbreak at its large Miami facility.

Former XFBC chair and COO Lisa Krinsky filed a lawsuit against “Doe 6,” a placeholder name for an online poster whose online username is a Spanish-language expletive. Krinsky accused Doe 6 and nine other posters to Yahoo’s Finance site of (among other things) libel and fraud for postings they made about her while she was a company officer. Krinsky sough to subpoena Yahoo for the identities of the posters so the suits could move forward.

A trial court granted the subpoena, but the appeals court has overturned the ruling, finding that while Doe 6’s messages were “unquestionably offensive and demeaning,” they did not meet the criteria for defamation because they could not be considered assertions of fact.

The ruling may re-ignite controversy over the value of anonymous and pseudonymous posting to online forums; in the past, Yahoo has complied with demands of Chinese authorities to turn over information about online writers, at least four of whom have been identified and sent to prison based in part on information Yahoo provided. More directly, in the U.S. pseudonymous posting came under fire when it came to light Whole Foods CEO John Mackey had been posting for years to Yahoo Finance forums under an assumed name, promoting Whole Foods’ business while minimizing rival Wild Oats.

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