Court upholds right to anonymous speech online

A U.S. district court judge on Thursday quashed a subpoena seeking to force Internet services provider InfoSpace Inc. to disclose the identity of individuals who posted anonymous messages on the company’s Silicon Investor online financial bulletin board., in a subpoena, had requested the true identities of 23 individuals who used pseudonyms to post messages about the company on the bulletin board, as part of the company’s defense against a class-action securities fraud lawsuit. The former Costa Mesa, Calif., online auction house alleged that certain of the unidentified individuals posted messages and manipulated’s stock price.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) represented one of the unidentified individuals known online as “NoGuano,” in an effort to protect anonymous speech on the Internet. The case differs a bit from other anonymous speech cases in that the individual was not a party to the case and no allegations of liability were ever made against the individual, the civil liberties and cyber-rights groups said in a statement. The party does admit to maintaining a Silicon Investor account, however he never posted any information on the site’s message board, they said.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly ruled that there was no compelling reason to divulge the true identities of “NoGuano” and the 22 other individuals, said Lauren Gelman, the EFF’s director of public policy.

“We think that case law is very clear and that anonymous speech should be protected,” Gelman said. Both the EFF and the ACLU suggest that online users should be able to post messages anonymously just as people have the right to distribute a leaflet using a pseudonym.

Keith B. Bardellini, an attorney from the Los Angeles law firm of Buchalter, Nemer, Fields & Younger, who is representing, could not be reached for comment.

In the case heard in a Seattle federal court, the EFF and ACLU argued the court should adopt the same test currently used to determine whether to compel identification of anonymous sources of journalists or members of private organizations. In that case, the court must first determine if the individual seeking the protected private information has a genuine need for the information and cannot discover the information any other way.

Several investors sued after its stock price plunged in 1999. In addition to the company itself, Dominic Magliarditi, who held the posts of chief operating officer, chief financial officer, secretary and director, as well as the company’s former chief executive officer, Steven W. Rebeil, are facing a class-action securities fraud lawsuit. The company has said the allegations against it are without merit.

In a similar case, the EFF in early February sought to quash a subpoena request made by private fire and ambulance company Rural/Metro Corp. to gain the names of individuals who allegedly posted messages on a Yahoo Inc. message board about the company. Rural/Metro alleged the individuals were posting inside information about the Scottsdale, Arizona-based company. Yet, Rural/Metro never fought the EFF’s request to quash the subpoena and dropped the request, Gelman said.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, in San Francisco, can be reached at Infospace, in Bellevue, Wash., can be reached at