Two Yale Law School students suing for defamation against anonymous users on the online legal community AutoAdmit made an important stride this week toward unmasking their attackers.
A federal judge in New Haven granted their request Tuesday to subpoena Internet service providers in the hopes of identifying the users. Since sexually explicit and derogatory posts targeting three female Yale Law students appeared on the Web forum in 2005, two students, who are unnamed in the suit, filed against the 39 authors of the allegedly defamatory posts.
Anthony Ciolli, a former AutoAdmit employee, was also initially named as a defendant, but his name was dropped from the suit in November when the plaintiffs decided to focus on suing the posters.
The suit claims that the postings, which bore the students’ full names and some of which linked to their pictures, caused emotional distress and cost one of the students a job offer. The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified actual and special damages from the defendants, on top of $245,400 in punitive damages.
AutoAdmit, which styles itself “the most prestigious law school discussion board in the world,” hosts threads about law school admissions and life at law firms that are visible to anyone online.
Unless the plaintiffs can uncover the real identities of the commenters, it will be nearly impossible to prosecute them, Internet law and privacy experts said.
Issuing subpoenas — for information from AT&T/SBC, AutoAdmit, GoDaddy.com, Microsoft, Yale Law School Information Technology and others — is a crucial step in that effort, which may allow the comments to be traced through the login records of Internet service providers.
“The reason to go to court is to get authority to formally ask, with subpoenas, for relevant information,” David Rosen LAW ’69, an attorney representing the students, said in a phone interview. “We’re hoping one way or another to figure out who the posters are so we can hold them accountable and give them a chance to defend themselves if they choose.”
Since anonymous online libel cases started emerging six or seven years ago, courts have settled on a process for granting requests to subpoena ISPs in cases that can demonstrate a convincing need, explained John Morris ’81 LAW ’86, director of the Internet Standards, Technology and Policy Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C.
“Of course the facts of the AutoAdmit case are particularly horrendous in terms of the statements made, but courts have really developed a healthy set of procedures for this,” he said. “It’s really not such a startling development.”
To prevent companies from filing suits as a means of discovering the identities of anonymous posters in order to harass them — as initially occurred when these cases first appeared with employees criticizing their companies on Yahoo! message boards — Morris said plaintiffs must now demonstrate a valid claim before a judge will grant subpoenas.
“Being anonymous online will not protect you if you libel or defame someone,” Morris said. “But a mere claim is not enough to breach anonymity. That protects anonymity from inappropriate harassment and protects the ability to speak and criticize.”
So while convincing the court of cause for subpoenas is an important step, the plaintiffs may still face technological hurdles in tracking down the identities of the commenters, even with the ISPs’ cooperation, said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
AutoAdmit users are not required to provide their real names when registering, according to court documents, so they may not have the users’ identities to give. Also, ISPs sometimes purge their records after a certain period, and even Internet Protocol addresses, once obtained, do not always lead to a single individual. For example, comments posted from a public or shared computer, such as in a lab or library where users are not required to log on, may prove to be dead ends, Volokh said.
“But many times people aren’t that careful about covering their tracks,” he said.
If the plaintiffs succeed in outing the defendants, they still have a regular libel case to pursue.
If not, “there’s no recourse,” Morris said.
Ashok Ramani, a lawyer at Keker & Van Nest who is working on the case for the plaintiffs, said his firm’s policy is not to comment on pending litigation.