NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Internet Messages Draw Lawsuits

March 2, 2000

More than 100 companies have filed suits recently against statements made anonymously online. The messages range from calls for employee sickouts to lies, rumors and other types of mischief, the companies allege.

Since most of the suits have been filed in the past six months and few have reached final resolution, this raises the question of free speech versus irresponsible slander and business disruptions.

  • For example, a few flight attendants at Northwest Airlines posted messages successfully urging their colleagues to phone in sick in the last weeks of December -- an illegal action under federal law -- forcing the airline to cancel 317 flights during the busy holiday season.
  • Companies have been successful in unmasking their foes, thanks to the digital tracks users leave on the Internet.
  • While acknowledging that corporations are entitled to prevent the release of trade secrets or the spread of lies about them, privacy rights advocates argue that the crackdown on message boards is going too far.

Companies are filing suits against unknown "John Does." They then request a judge to issue a subpoena forcing the host of a message board to release the Internet addresses that are attached to their postings.

Hosts almost always comply. Unless the Joe Doe hires a lawyer and fights, the Internet address is usually available in a matter of weeks.

Source: Mike France and Dan Carney, "Free Speech on the Net? Not Quite," Business Week, February 28, 2000.


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