Focusing public attention on emerging privacy and civil liberties issues

Internet Anonymity

"The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one's privacy as possible. ...

Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation -- and their ideas from suppression -- at the hand of an intolerant society."

- McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 334 (1995)

A majority of Internet users feel that the medium's most valuable asset is anonymity - the ability to conceal one's identity while communicating. Users are able to post to message boards, converse in chatrooms, and visit informational sites while keeping their names and addresses private. This anonymity allows the persecuted, the underserved, and the simply embarrassed to seek information -- and disseminate it -- while maintaining their privacy and reputations in both cyberspace and the material world.

Similarly, there are strong incentives for whistle-blowers to remain anonymous. For example, individuals seeking to publicize atrocities in war-torn Kosovo recently had their identities protected by an online "concealer."

In the past year, as the popularity of online message boards has continued to increase, the veil of anonymity increasingly has come under attack. Corporations, seeking to identify those who have voiced critical opinions about the firms' business practices, have initiated a wave of "John Doe" lawsuits seeking the identities of anonymous Internet posters.

Recent News Articles

Bad-mouthing Businesses on the Internet Can Be Risky (Topeka Capital-Journal - August 2, 1999)

Bank Sues 'John Doe' Over Rumors (Palm Beach Post - August 2, 1999)

Surfing the Message Boards(St. Petersburg Times - August 2, 1999)

Unmasking Anonymous Posters (Wired News - July 29, 1999)

Bank Sues Anonymous Net Huckster (Salon.com - July 28, 1999)

Lilly Files Message Board Defamation Suit (NEWS.COM - July 28, 1999)

Lilly Industries Sues Net Critics (Indianapolis Star - July 28, 1999)

Jean Bernhard Buttner Fights Web Smears and Her Brother Van (New York Observer - July 19, 1999)

Company Settles Suit Against Online Critic (New York Times [free registration required] - July 16, 1999)

Court Dismisses Case Against AOL Member (NEWS.COM - June 30, 1999)

Study: Online Anonymity Critical (Wired News - June 29, 1999)

AOL Fights Phoenix Subpoena (Orlando Business Journal - June 28, 1999)

Americare Health Scan Files Libel Suit (Yahoo Finance - June 18, 1999)

Telco Files Net Defamation Suit (NEWS.COM - June 8, 1999)

ISP Reveals Scientology Critic (Wired News - June 8, 1999)

Scientology's Online Battle (Wired News - June 3, 1999)

Scientology Subpoenas Worldnet (NEWS.COM - June 3, 1999)

Hitsgalore.com Takes a Stand Against "Cybersmear" Defamation Campaign (Businesswire.com - May 27, 1999)

Raytheon Triumphs Over Yahoo! Posters' Anonymity (Salon.com - May 24, 1999)

Raytheon Drops Suit Over Internet Chat (NY Times [free registration required] - May 22, 1999)

Brokerage Files Net Defamation Suit (NEWS.COM - May 20, 1999)

Private Personal Computing? (Law News Network - May 18, 1999)

State College Man Pays Large Penalty for Internet Attack on Company (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - April 29, 1999)

Electronic Bulletin Boards Carry Corporate Criticism (Nashville Tennesseean - April 25, 1999)

Caveat Poster (Salon.com - April 20, 1999)

Bloomberg Sues Over Bogus Site (Wired News - April 13, 1999)

Anti-Shoney's Notes on Web Message Board Prompt Suit (Nashville Tennesseean - April 10, 1999)

Phoenix Wages Net War(Orlando Business Journal - March 22, 1999)

Companies Fight Anonymous Critics with Lawsuits (NY Times [free registration required] - March 12, 1999)

Earlier News Articles

Slander Suit Served Against Yahoo! Users (NEWS.COM - March 9, 1999)

Anonymous Posting Under Attack (ZDNN.com - March 9, 1999)

Net Rumors Fry Stock Guru(Wired News - March 9, 1999)

Company Trolls for Scuttlebutt on the Internet (New York Times [free registration required] - March 8, 1999)

Yahoo Targeted Over Board Postings (ZDNN.com - March 7, 1999)

Yahoo Message Board Suit Continues (NEWS.COM - March 1, 1999)

Grant Street's Cybergossip(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - January 30, 1999)

Internet Attacks Bring Man Charges, Suit, Suspension (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - November 8, 1998)

Sticks and Stones on theNet (Wired News - November 5, 1998)

Yahoo Shifts Message Board Policy (NEWS.COM - September 16, 1998)

Yahoo Message Board Users Sued (NEWS.COM - September 9, 1998)

Firm Files Suit Against Yahoo Finance Users (ZDNN.com - September 9, 1998)

Paper Gets AOL Member Name(Wired News - July 21, 1998)

AOL Reveals User Name in Court Case (ZDNN.COM - July 18, 1998)

J'accuser Beware (The Globe and Mail - July 13, 1998)

Yahoo! Yanks Investor Gossip (Wired News - July 10, 1998)

Finance Sites Walk Fine Line (NEWS.COM - June 18, 1998)

AOL Reaches Agreements with Sailor, Shareholders (ZDNN.COM - June 12, 1998)

Sailor: Navy Asked, AOL Told (Wired News - January 12, 1998)

Online Stock Talk Fuels Lawsuit (NEWS.COM - September 17, 1997)

Bounty Offered for Stock Tipster (NEWS.COM - September 5, 1997)

Satanist Sues ISP to Silence Usenet Poster (Wired News - May 20, 1997)

prognostication: Pitfalls of the Trading Pit (NEWS.COM - August 22, 1996)

You Can Be Anonymous

ZDNet Online Privacy Guide

Anonymity Guaranteed on the Internet (CNN.COM - April 27, 1999)

Invisible on the Web(Wired News - June 23, 1998)

Is Web-based E-mail Bad for Your Anonymity? (Wired News - February 26, 1998)

Faceless Freedom on the Net (Wired News - November 25, 1997)

Zero-Knowledge Guarantees Anonymity for Browser Users (CNN.COM - February 11, 1999)

Anonymity by Degrees(Wired News - October 1, 1997)

How Hackers Cover Their Tracks (CNN.COM - January 25, 1999)

Covering Your Tracks Via a Helping Hand (Wired News - June 10, 1997)

Privada

Scientists Back Anonymous Web Messaging (CNN.COM - July 5, 1999)


Legal Materials

The Current Law

Section 2703(c) of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) permits ISPs to disclose information on their subscribers to all non-governmental entities. While the section requires governmental entities to present subpoenas or court orders for such information, it allows ISPs to disclose subscriber information to private individuals or entities without legal authorization. This absence of protection came to the forefront in late 1997 when a Naval investigator phoned America Online, failed to identify himself as an agent of a governmental entity, and obtained the identity of an AOL user who described himself as "gay" in his one of his several AOL profiles. While AOL violated its own privacy policy by disclosing the subscriber's identity (and later settling with the subscriber), it was not clear whether there was any violation of the law. In its decision in McVeigh v. Cohen, the federal court in Washington suggested that ECPA may have been violated and ordered the Navy to discontinue its discharge proceeding against the sailor. The episode suggests that an amendment to ECPA requiring legal process for disclosure of user information to anyone is long overdue.

Jurisdiction

Judge Rules ISP, Server Location May Determine Jurisdiction, June 11, 1999

Ruling Has AOL Members on Alert, June 11, 1999

ABA Project on Internet Jurisdiction

Notable Cases

McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission

"Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation -- and their ideas from suppression -- at the hand of an intolerant society."

NAACP v. Alabama

"Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs."

ACLU v. Zell Miller

Talley v. California

Resources

Complaint in John Doe v. Yahoo! (Aquacool Case) (pdf).

Press release in John Doe v. Yahoo!

EPIC and ACLU Release in John Doe v. Yahoo!, May 11, 2000.

Watchtower Bible Decision.