internet law, web 2.0 law

Anonymous Online Comments Protected Under Maryland Internet Ruling

March 03, 2009 10:28 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
First Amendment laws are upheld in the latest Web 2.0 defamation lawsuit.

Maryland Furthers New Jersey Internet Law

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that an Independent Newspapers online forum is not required to reveal forum participant identities, despite their engaging in a defamatory online exchange about a certain Dunkin’ Donuts location in 2006. The reason, reported The Washington Post, is that the plaintiff wrongly identified the forum posters.

The ruling reversed a lower court ruling, and has further shaped “an emerging area of First Amendment law in the Internet age,” according to The Washington Post, which, along with other media outlets, “filed a brief in support of Independent Newspapers.”

In developing a “five-step process for judges to follow” in such cases, Maryland looked to a New Jersey case from 2002 but intensified the process. For example, the plaintiff claiming defamation must not only identify the exact forum statements and damage caused by them, however may also be asked to “provide specific evidence supporting each element of the defamation claim.”

Similar Web 2.0 lawsuits have become increasingly common in recent months. “Most of the lawsuits claim defamation—false statements of fact that tend to hurt someone's reputation—and involve content published on some of the Web's biggest sites: Google, Yahoo, Craigslist and others,” reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

A case involving defamatory comments made in an online forum against two female law students from Yale University was filed last June, but has been stymied. The young women and their lawyers have been unable to determine who wrote the posts, and evidence may have been lost already. Some companies delete data after 60 or 90 days, according to Ars Technica.

Ars Technica also reported on a case involving Lisa Krinsky, the chief operating officer of a Florida-based drug service company, who filed suit against 10 anonymous Yahoo forum posters who made negative statements about her and her company. A California judge ruled that the posters could remain anonymous because their forum comments “were not assertions of ‘actual fact’ and therefore not actionable under Florida's defamation law.”

The frustrating gray area of Web 2.0 legal cases has prompted some politicians to take extreme measures. Kentucky State Representative Tim Couch has suggested that anonymous forum commenting be outlawed, according to Mashable.

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Background: Complexities of anonymous posting

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, Inc., drew headlines in 2007 when it was discovered that he’d anonymously promoted his company in Yahoo forums, and posted negative comments about rival Wild Oats, for nearly nine years. In response, Lev Grossman of Time magazine wrote, “anonymity has a disastrously disinhibiting effect on human behavior. Freed of any possibility that their words will be connected to their actual identities, anonymous Internet posters have charted historic new depths of verbal offensiveness.”

In May 2008, Mackey went back online. In his blog, he discussed the Internet’s usefulness in enabling open discussion about ideas.

Related Topic: Other cases involving anonymous forum postings

In February, drug producers Schering-Plough Corp. and Merck & Co., which together produce the cholesterol drug Vytorin, asked a judge to disregard negative comments made on CafePharma, a Web site for pharmaceutical sales representatives. The drug companies were attempting to clean up their image in the wake of a lawsuit filed against them by investors for securities fraud.

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