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Man fights to un-mask e-mail prankster

A US man who received an offensive e-mail, purportedly from himself, is fighting to find out who actually sent the e-mail, in a case that may throw light on the boundaries between free speech, privacy and the internet, according to an Associated Press report.03 Jun 2004

The case concerns an e-mail received by Maine resident Ron Fitch last Christmas. The e-mail, sent from an account opened in Fitch's name, contained a cartoon attachment showing Fitch, his wife and their late St Bernard dog, says Associated Press.

It was also forwarded to various residents of Ron Fitch's hometown – the historic and beautiful Great Diamond Island, just off Portland.

No one owned up to sending the e-mail and so Fitch took the matter to court, filing what is known as a 'John Doe' lawsuit, which allows a case to proceed even when the identity of the defendant is not known. According to AP, Fitch is claiming that John Doe has committed identity theft and fraud and is seeking compensation.

Part of the suit has focused on identifying John Doe through his e-mail account. ISPs can be subpoenaed to identify who owns accounts operated by them. Time Warner was asked to supply these details.

Time Warner informed John Doe that the request had been made. John Doe is now fighting to protect his identity, arguing that to release his details would be a breach of his right to privacy and anonymity.

John Doe's lawyer, George Marcus, told AP, "We have a great tradition in this country of the anonymous publication of works, going back to Benjamin Franklin and 'Poor Richard's Almanac'".

"Congress has said that we're going to protect privacy. As long as someone is not committing a crime, they deserve to keep their anonymity," he added.

The Cumberland Superior Court does not appear to agree with him, ruling in May that John Doe's identity should be revealed.

"There is absolutely no indication that Congress was seeking to prevent disclosure of persons who are alleged to have committed a form of identity theft by sending e-mails under false names," said the judgment.

John Doe has appealed to the Maine Supreme Court.