AOL Loses Subscriber Privacy Suit

A publicly traded electronics manufacturer moved a step closer to uncovering the identity of an America Online subscriber who bashed the company in a chat room when the Virginia Supreme Court sided Friday with a California court ruling requiring AOL to reveal the true name of “scovey2.” The case could ultimately land in the U.S. Supreme Court based on First Amednment rights of free speech.

Nam Tai Electronics wants the name to pursue a civil defamation suit. AOL, the wholly-owned subsidiary of AOL Time Warner , says it should not be required to reveal subscriber information because this would “infringe on the well-established First Amendment right to speak anonymously,” and that Nam Tai could not meet the “heightened scrutiny required to overcome that right.”

On Jan. 26, 2001, the Hong Kong-based Nam Tai filed a complaint in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles against 51 unknown individuals alleging libel, trade libel, and violations of the California Business and Professions Code Section, claiming the unknown individuals had posted “false, defamatory, and otherwise unlawful messages” on a Yahoo! message board devoted to discussion of Nam Tai’s stock.

According to Nam Tai, a particularly egregious message was posted by scovey2: “Sinking is not a province in China but an observation of this company’s stock market performance. This low tech crap that they produce is in an extremely competitive and low profitability industry. I see see-sawing of the stock with no real direction. (See-sawing is also not a province.)”

In responding to a subpoena request for the poster’s true identity, Yahoo! revealed that scovey2 was a registered AOL user, and the issue moved to Virginia, where the Dulles-based AOL, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AOL Time Warner, maintains its headquarters. In April of last year, AOL asked the Virginia Supreme Court to quash the California issued subpoena.

The Virginia Court, however, ruled that California has first standing in the case and ordered AOL to comply with the California subpoena.

“We will affirm the judgment of the trial court enforcing the California court’s commission for discovery of AOL’s records,” the court said in its ruling.

Nicholas Graham, a spokesperson for AOL told, “We are clearly disappointed with the ruling. There are some very important, very critical First Amendment issues at take here.”

AOL now has 10 days to request the Virginia Supreme Court to reconsider its decision or comply with the subpoena request to turn over the true identity of scovey2. If AOL files and loses that appeal, the company could then appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Obviously, we are very pleased with the outcome,” said Jon Talotta, an attorney representing Nam Tai. “If AOL complies, we will absolutely pursue the case against scovey2.”

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