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It’s Okay To Be Anonymous Again (For Now)

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A recent court decision in Arizona is being touted as a victory for free speech and for the right to speak anonymously online.

It's Okay To Be Anonymous Again (For Now)
Hiding Behind Your Computer Is Still Allowed

Late last week, the Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County ruled against a Massachusetts-based real estate developer’s petition to unmask the identity of an anonymous website operator, who set up a site dedicated to exposing the developer’s business practices.

PaulMcMann.com isn’t owned by Paul McMann. Well, it was owned by him until he let the registration lapse. The domain was snatched up by an angry (anonymous) business associate who is now using the domain as a headquarters for an online campaign warning others about him. The anonymous webmaster invites others to tell about their experiences on the site.

The site owner also alleges McMann attempted to hire a hacker to take it down to circumvent the legal process. Someone at least going by the handle PaulMcMann posted an ad here entitled “Hacker Wanted.”

Without a hacker, the decision is thrown to the court, which ruled that without evidence of wrongdoing, the critic in question retained his or her First Amendment right to anonymity.

This is the second failed attempt to unmask McMann’s critic. Previously, according to Public Citizen, the Internet free speech organization representing the anonymous critic, McMann sent subpoenas to GoDaddy and to Domains by Proxy, the registrar and host of the new PaulMcMann.com, seeking the site owner’s identity.

The US District Court for the District of Massachusetts dismissed McMann’s claim in October, finding he did not have any legitimate claim for defamation, invasion of privacy, or copyright infringement.

“This victory is a win for the First Amendment right of free speech on the Internet,” said Greg Beck, an attorney for Public Citizen. “The court correctly recognized that people’s right to speak anonymously online should not be violated without good cause.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been on a similar mission recently, taking on Santa Barbara News-Press owner and publisher Wendy McCaw.

News-Press issued a subpoena to Google asking for the identity of pseudonymous blogger Sara de la Guerra, an anonymity-busting stop along the way to discovering who made an anonymous comment that allegedly influenced her editorial staff’s vote to unionize.

The EFF’s Corynne McSherry posts:

Court after court has recognized that discovery requests that seek to pierce the anonymity of online speakers must be carefully scrutinized in order to prevent the improper use of the discovery process to unmask anonymous speakers. Moreover, courts have recognized the need for a particularly high level of protection when the discovery request seeks information about a nonparty.

Hat tip to TechDirt.

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