EPIC logo
 [Press Release Issued by EPIC and ACLU re John Doe v. Yahoo! Inc.]


Thursday, May 11, 2000                   David Sobel, EPIC
                                         Emily Whitfield, ACLU
A federal lawsuit filed today in California could establish
important protections for Internet privacy and anonymity,
according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  The suit, filed
against Yahoo! by a user of the service's popular financial
message boards, challenges the company's practice of disclosing
a user's personal information to third parties without prior
notice to the user.
Over the past year, Yahoo! has been inundated with subpoenas
issued by companies seeking the identities of individuals
anonymously posting information critical of the firms and their
executives.  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.  Yahoo! is unique among major online
companies in its refusal to notify its users of such subpoenas
and provide them with an opportunity to challenge the
information requests.
Privacy and free speech advocates, including EPIC and the ACLU,
have criticized Yahoo!'s policy on the ground that Internet
users have a right to communicate anonymously and usually do
so for valid reasons.  According to David L. Sobel, EPIC's
General Counsel, "online anonymity plays a critical role in
fostering free expression on the Internet, and has clearly
contributed to the popularity of the medium."  He said, "The
U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that anonymity is a constitutional
right, but practices such as those of Yahoo! may make that right
illusory online."
Chris Hansen, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union
who specializes in Internet speech, said that his organization
favors at least two protections for anonymous chatters.  "Any
complaint filed in court against an unknown Internet defendant
should include specifics of the allegedly objectionable
postings," he said.
"Also, a judge should not allow a lawyer to issue subpoenas in
these cases without requiring that the Internet service provider
notify the potential defendant that someone is seeking
information about him and giving him an opportunity to enter
court to protect his anonymity."
"The right to anonymous speech should not be breached so
easily," Hansen said.
The lawsuit was filed in United States District Court in Los
Angeles by "Aquacool_2000," a pseudonymous Yahoo! user whose
personal information was disclosed to AnswerThink Consulting
Group, Inc., a publicly held company.  A copy of the lawsuit (in
PDF) is available at:
                               - 30 -