Web anonymity affirmed by NJ judge

John Does keep their shirts

New Jersey Superior Court Judge Kenneth MacKenzie on Tuesday affirmed the anonymity of four 'John Doe' defendants accused of publishing unkind and false statements about the company for which they work.

Morristown-NJ sales consultancy outfit Dendrite International had sought the true identities from Internet portal Yahoo! of the four critics, identified in court papers as 'ajcazz,' 'gacbar,' 'xxplrr' and 'implementor extrodinaire'.

The unmasking of anonymous on-line critics as part of the evidence discovery process has been widely denounced. The danger is that companies would get the skinny on people in their employ, against whom they could retaliate, without actually going to trial.

In many cases of bad-faith discovery, the company has too little evidence to pursue a court action; in other cases they merely want to spare themselves the expense of a trial. Once a discovery motion is approved and satisfied, the company is at liberty to retaliate against the employee in-house, presumably with an involuntary transfer to some exceptionally undesirable post from which the whistle-blower will undoubtedly resign.

A recent ruling in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in which a judge sought the identities of anonymous on-line critics, also shot down the notion of unmasking critics before actual libel or other harm can be substantiated.

Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin had sought the identities of anonymous authors on a Web site which accused her of lobbying on behalf of an attorney seeking the coveted black robes. Melvin filed a defamation lawsuit seeking disclosure of the author's name.

In hearing the evidence Judge Stanton Wettick found that "anonymous Internet speakers, unlike the national media, are vulnerable because they lack power or money. Without anonymity, speakers will be less willing to express controversial positions because of fears of reprisal."

Judge Wettick ruled that an anonymous author's identity must not be disclosed until s/he is given an opportunity to argue and produce evidence that the defamation lawsuit facing them is frivolous or otherwise lacking in merit. ®

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