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The Internet has popularized the use of anonymous online identities. For privacy purposes when communicating with strangers, using public message boards, or in Internet gaming, many people avoid using their legal name and instead choose aliases. Advocates of online privacy such as the American Civil Liberties Union strongly back protections for this anonymity. Publishing anonymously has a long tradition at common law, but anonymity is not guaranteed by statute.

Legal battles over anonymity have become increasingly common since the late-1990s. In particular, companies have sought to discover the identities of their online critics by issuing subpoenas to force their disclosure. Civil liberties advocates have argued that the threat of legal action by powerful plaintiffs can stifle online speech, which, they say, depends upon anonymity. Opponents have regarded anonymity as merely cover for defamation and libel.

Courts have provided different results, and no consistent body of law exists. In an October 2000 ruling in Hvide v. John Does, a Florida appeals refused to overturn a lower court order that Yahoo and America Online must divulge the identities of eight anonymous message posters sought by a subpoena in a defamation lawsuit. Courts in other jurisdictions have responded differently, articulating tough evidentiary standards for obtaining subpoenas. In November 2000, a Pittsburgh state court ruled in Melvin v. Doe against a public official seeking to discover the identity of anonymous critic. And in Dendrite International v. John Does, the Superior Court of New Jersey ruled in November 2000 against a company seeking to compel disclosure of anonymous critics accused of making false statements, holding that the right of companies to sue “must be balanced against the legitimate and valuable right to participate in online forums anonymously or pseudony-mously.” Case law on anonymity thus remains in flux in the early 2000s, and it is hard to predict how this area of online privacy law will develop in future years.

Inside Anonymity