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Yahoo Sued over Message Board Posts

By Keith Regan E-Commerce Times ECT News Network
Aug 6, 2004 10:54 AM PT

An attorney has sued Yahoo, charging the portal didn't do enough to help him stop personal attacks against him on its message boards. He hopes to make the suit a class action.

Yahoo Sued over Message Board Posts

Stephen Galton, a corporate lawyer in Los Angeles, California, filed suit on Wednesday. Galton claims the Internet company has protected people who have posted potentially defamatory comments while falsely claiming that it monitors boards to prevent such abuse.

"We are declining to comment on this lawsuit," Yahoo spokesperson Mary Osako told the E-Commerce Times.

Yahoo Terms of Use

Yahoo message boards direct users to a terms of use notice that says in part, "messages that harass, abuse or threaten other members; have obscene or otherwise objectionable content; have spam, commercial or advertising content or links may be removed." It also states: "Never assume that you are completely anonymous and cannot be identified by your posts."

In the suit, Galton claims that he registered for Yahoo message boards earlier this year after a derogatory post about one of his clients was brought to his attention.

After posting a response under the screen name "stephengalton," he said, other board users began to personally attack him, calling him a "shyster," and an "overly robust geezer that makes a living walking behind the elephant with a shovel."

In April, Galton moved to file suit directly against some of the message board posters and asked in a subpoena for Yahoo to provide personal and identifying information about those using aliases. Yahoo responded with incomplete or inaccurate information, the complaint alleges.

Class Action Suit?

Galton is leaving the suit open for others to join, proposing to establish a class action suit on behalf of California residents who -- since 2000 -- have been targeted by abusive messages on a Yahoo board and denied information about their attackers.

Although specific dollar amounts are not mentioned in the suit, Galton is seeking restitution for his costs as well as an injunction against Yahoo.

Attempts to reach Galton at his firm, Galton & Helm, were not successful.

Yahoo's Defenders

Yahoo will almost certainly find plenty of allies among civil libertarians and other groups.

Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said anonymity is a bedrock principal of public commentary in the United States.

"The idea is that if you want people to speak freely about issues of public concern you need to give them the option of not having their names revealed," Cohn told the E-Commerce Times.

The EFF has been involved in a number of cases in which it argued in favor of protecting the anonymity of message board users, including several suits stemming from comments posted on Yahoo boards.

California has been at the forefront of protecting freedom, and even anonymity, online. A state lawmaker recently filed a bill that would require Internet service providers to inform users when someone attempts to find out their identity through a subpoena.

Not Libel

Galton is not suing Yahoo for libel, likely because recent case law has largely indemnified Internet companies from being held accountable in libel suits. The case law holds that the responsibility for posting erroneous and damaging information lies primarily with the person who posts it, not the Internet company.

The most recent case involved an aggrieved eBay user whose suit against the auction site was tossed out.

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