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Yahoo! sued for privacy violations

A federal lawsuit filed today in California could establish important protections in the US for internet privacy and anonymity, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).12 May 2000

The suit, filed against Yahoo! by a user of the service's popular financial message boards, challenges the company's practice of disclosing a user's personal information to third parties without prior notice to the user.

Over the past year, Yahoo! has been inundated with lawsuits issued by companies seeking the identities of individuals anonymously posting information critical of the firms and their executives. Without notifying the targeted users, and without assessing the validity of the legal claims underlying the subpoenas, Yahoo! is alleged to systematically disclose identifying information such as users' names, e-mail addresses and internet protocol addresses.

According to David L. Sobel, EPIC's General Counsel, "online anonymity plays a critical role in fostering free expression on the internet, and has clearly contributed to the popularity of the medium." He said, "The US Supreme Court has ruled that anonymity is a constitutional right, but practices such as those of Yahoo! may make that right illusory on-line."

Chris Hansen, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who specialises in internet speech, said that his organisation favours at least two protections for users of anonymous chat sites. "Any complaint filed in court against an unknown internet defendant should include specifics of the allegedly objectionable postings," he said. "Also, a judge should not allow a lawyer to issue subpoenas in these cases without requiring that the internet service provider notify the potential defendant that someone is seeking information about him and giving him an opportunity to enter court to protect his anonymity."

The lawsuit was filed in United States District Court in Los Angeles by "Aquacool_2000," a pseudonym for the Yahoo! user whose personal information was disclosed to AnswerThink Consulting Group, Inc.