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A US judge has ruled that surfers accused of posting negative messages about a company on the Internet in the hope of lowering its share price can remain anonymous.

US District Judge Thomas Zilly said the first amendment applied to the Web, and this included the right of a person to speak without revealing their identity, AP reports.

This will have come as a blow to 2TheMart.com, a now defunct online auction outfit which had asked for the 23 names.

The California-based dotcom claimed to have been the victim of short sellers - people who sell borrowed securities and then buy them later at a cheaper price to pay back the loan - and alleged the message board posters had spread negative rumours about the company to push down its share price.

2TheMart.com wanted Infospace, the company that runs the Silicon Investor message board, to give it the names of the people involved.

The former dotcom said it needed them to defend itself against a class-action lawsuit. It wanted to prove the people in the chat room were also involved in the suit, which accuses the company of securities fraud.

But Judge Zilly decided the evidence was not worthy of setting aside the First Amendment.

Last week San Diego-based chip outfit MeltroniX said it would name and sue a group of surfers it claimed posted defamatory statements about the company in its Internet chat room. ®

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