Should Anonymous Online Critics Be Held Accountable?

Since the advent of online trading ande-commerce, message boards and chat rooms have become havens for those who want to take shots at or float rumors about different companies and their top management.

Unfortunately, most of the popular investment boards allow these often-ruthless online critics the use of aliases to hide their true identities.

However, according to recent reports, more and more companies are fighting back. By subpoenaing these sites, companies are discovering the real names and e-mail addresses of these anonymous bad-mouthers.

Cease And Desist

In fact, it has been reported that some stock chat sites are getting so many requests for the identities of certain posters that they may be forced to hire a staff just to process them.

Some sites apparently try to notify the poster that they are about to be unmasked, while others do not. It is believed that America Online in particular has a long-standing policy of giving its users two weeks notice before it responds to a subpoena for personal information.

Nonetheless, in most cases, the legal counsel for the inquiring company will warn posters that a failure to cease and desist will result in a lawsuit. Usually, this warning is enough to frighten off the average online faultfinder, especially after they calculate the high cost of retaining legal counsel.

It is this silencing of those critical of corporate America that has many advocates of the First Amendment bent out of shape. They contend that such legal intimidation is really an infringement upon the unmasked chatters’ freedom of speech.

Still, companies claim that disgruntled former employers or people who are trying to benefit by driving down the price of the firm’s stock are using aliases as a way to shield them from the law.

Read ‘Em And Weep

Being a journalist, I find it somewhat awkward to say that I wholeheartedly agree with the conclusions of many of these companies.

I have perused the message boards of dozens of financial sites and have found messages that range from being simply misguided to outright slanderous.

Before the shield of the Internet existed, no person would dare air some of the accusations, rumors or untruths that I have seen scattered on chat boards, for fear of being sued. And rightfully so.

Strange Phenomenon

I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon that has developed in cyberspace. It is the false notion that somehow, anything goes on the Internet. The general consensus among many is that there is no such thing as personal responsibility online.

Hogwash. Try and tell that to the next FBI agent who arrests somebody for trying to seduce a minor or transmit child pornography via the Internet.

Own Up

As a journalist, if I write something I can’t put my name to, it means that I haven’t really checked the facts or presented both sides of the story. If I make a mistake for some reason — even innocently — the party I unintentionally injure can sue me. It’s plain and simple. That’s why I’m very careful.

Anonymous message posters should be too.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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