Companies and individuals must prove that anonymous postings on the Internet are defamatory before a court will order that the author be identified, a California judge ruled Monday.
Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Judith Sanders ordered that Ampex Corp. must demonstrate that anonymous postings about the company and its executives were libelous before agreeing to require an Internet company to divulge the author's identity.
Ampex, a Redwood City developer of technology used for visual information such as television broadcasts, had asked the court to reveal the author's identity so a lawsuit could proceed.
Sanders rejected the request, and gave the company until Dec. 17 to present convincing evidence that the author, known as "John Doe" in court filings, wrote something legally defamatory before his identity could be revealed.
The ruling is the latest in a series of court cases nationwide to apply constitutional protections to anonymous speech on the Internet.
"The posts were pure expressions of opinion," said Jennifer Stisa Granick, director of Stanford University's law and technology clinic at the Center for Internet and Society, which represents Doe. "There was nothing in the complaint that was defamatory, and the judge recognized that."
Ampex did not return calls requesting comment.
While Internet users can conceal their identities from the public, computer logs and similar records often can reveal their names, provided that the Internet service providers or the company that hosts the message board cooperates with the inquiry.
The postings in question were made on an electronic bulletin board hosted by Yahoo Inc.
Ampex demanded that Yahoo produce the logs and Yahoo--following its policy--alerted Doe, who sought legal help from the Stanford clinic.
Free-speech advocates have been increasingly concerned about attempts by companies to get the courts to reveal the identities of anonymous online pamphleteers. Company lawyers typically claim that the shield of anonymity must be stripped before a lawsuit can proceed.
David L. Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that often a company has no intention of taking someone to court.
Instead, the goal is to find who is saying things the company doesn't like to make other people more reluctant to say similar things, Sobel said. But decisions in a number of states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington, generally have found that anonymous speech needs to be protected.