Court offers guidelines on when to unmask anonymous posters

18 08 2009

In the US, the right to free speech is construed as also protecting the anonymity of the person doing the speaking. Provided that the content, be it spoken or written, violates no laws, citizens have the right to fulminate in public fora without said public being aware of their identity. Courts have also extended this protection to anonymous Internet communications, and are now being asked to weigh in on a related issue: when do accusations of wrongdoing justify the removal of anonymity from the sources of anonymous statements made via the Internet.

The precedents that have been set so far have been a bit mixed. In cases involving defamation, a Virginia court has determined that plaintiffs need only to show that they have a “good faith basis” for their accusations in order to have an otherwise anonymous defendant named. In contrast, New Jersey courts have decided that each claim against a defendant has to be supported by evidence. The latest to weigh in is the District of Columbia’s Court of Appeals, which is tackling a case in which a John Doe defendant lodged anonymous accusations of software piracy against a company, which has sued him for defamation. The DC court ruled that the case may proceed, and provided guidelines that the trial judge should use in order to determine whether the defendant should be unmasked.

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