Caution to Anonymous Internet Posters – Your Cover Might Be Blown

Next time you consider posting something on the Internet, think again as your identity could be revealed! Under the presumed cloak of anonymity, individuals often throw caution to the wind and voice controversial and unfiltered views on the Internet. Based upon a recent ruling by an Indiana State Court in a defamation case, however, the rules of engagement on the Internet may have changed.

To advance claims of defamation field by Jeffrey Miller and his wife, Plaintiffs sought to identify anonymous Internet posters so they could include additional parties as defendants. To facilitate the identification process, Plaintiffs served subpoenas on various media outlets, including The Star, The Indianapolis Business Journal (“IBJ”) and WRTV (Channel 6) to determine the identities of individuals who criticized Mr. Miller anonymously online at those outlets’ websites. When they objected, Judge S.K. Reid ordered The Star and IBJ to turn over identifying information such as the anonymous Internet posters’ protocol addresses and/or Internet providers, which would enable Plaintiffs’ counsel to subpoena the Internet providers for the posters’ real name. On March 21, 2011, The Indianapolis Star (“The Star”) filed an appeal with the Indiana Court of Appeals to decide the question of whether Indiana’s journalism shield law and/or constitutional protections (state or federal) protect media outlets from being forced to disclose the identities of anonymous posters on their websites.

With an increasing number of defamation claims involving anonymous Internet posters, the outcome of this appeal will undoubtedly impact the manner in which Internet posters voice their opinions and/or whether websites will continue to allow individuals to post opinions anonymously. Whether you are a passionate advocate for a cause or a simple cyberbully, you should proceed with caution as your right to free speech may not be as limitless as you think. Going forward, post anonymously at your own risk because your anonymity may be a fiction.

Scott J. Etish is an Associate on the Gibbons E-Discovery Task Force.
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