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When Philadelphia businessman Tom Amenta opened his e-mail last week, he got a big surprise from Internet message-board site Raging Bull. In response to a subpoena, the site was about to turn over his personal information to TheBigHub.com, a Texas search-engine company. Amenta was shocked. Frustrated by the falling stock price, he hadn’t posted a message on TheBigHub board since November. Amenta said that since he bought shares in TheBigHub in mid-1999, he has lost $20,000 and has completely washed his hands of the company. The e-mail from Raging Bull left him perplexed. “I never shorted the stock and I never was a basher,” said Amenta, who used the pseudonym “ta1golf” on Raging Bull. “I have one negative post out of 50 or 60, and this happens.” Amenta wasn’t the only one contacted. TheBigHub and one of its backers, Robert J. McNulty, both filed suit in August against Raging Bull, parent company AltaVista, three specific Raging Bull posters and anonymous posters “Does 1-50.” TheBigHub lawyers didn’t return calls to comment. The complaint? At least in the case of McNulty, he said each separate publication had exposed him to “unwarranted ridicule, contempt, hatred and obloquy.” The McNulty-related cases against Raging Bull and its posters are just the latest in a string of suits that could determine whether message-boards posters have a right to keep their identities hidden. Increasingly, companies and individuals are turning to the courts to expose people who post critical information about them on stock message boards. And there’s a growing debate in privacy and legal circles on whether companies should be made to comply with what some are calling obvious methods to stifle the negative remarks. This week, a Florida appeals court heard arguments in a libel case brought by former Hvide Marine CEO Erik Hvide against several “Does” who used Yahoo Finance’s message boards to post critical missives about the company and the CEO. Originally, a Florida judge ruled that two defendants in the Hvide case could not keep their names secret while challenging the suit. It was one of the first decisions on “cybersmear” cases. Legal scholars say the outcome of the appeal, which could come in a matter of weeks, could determine the precedent for all such cases. The problem for law enforcement officials is that not everyone uses sites such as Yahoo Finance, Silicon Investor and Raging Bull to post innocent criticism of companies and executives. On Sept. 20, the Security and Exchange Commission announced that it brought charges and settled with 15-year-old Jonathan G. Lebed, who sold micro-cap stocks after touting them in hundreds of posts logged primarily on Yahoo Finance message boards. Lebed agreed to pay $285,000 to the U.S. Treasury. But not everyone is using the boards for the reasons Lebed used them. “Someone who has made a fair and legal criticism of a publicly traded company should have a way to have their anonymity protected,” says David Sobel, general counsel of the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. “But whether it’s a good case or a bad case, the poster has a good chance of having their anonymity removed.” That’s certainly true in TheBigHub and McNulty cases. A Raging Bull representative said that while the company won’t go into specifics on cases, its policy is to turn over information once the company receives a subpoena. Raging Bull, however, said it alerts the posters that it is about to do so. Raging Bull, however, is in the clear, according to Sobel. Under the Communications Decency Act, a company is immune from charges brought about from the postings of users on its service. McNulty is no stranger to courts of law. A longtime Southern California retailing executive, he has been involved in various legal skirmishes and has run into trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In 1994, the SEC ruled that McNulty had defrauded investors by using the proceeds of securities offerings from three companies he headed to finance the operations of affiliated companies. In 1999, McNulty left the first Web company he founded, Shopping.com, amid an SEC investigation into the manipulation of the company’s stock, which had increased more than 250 percent over a few months. While McNulty escaped blame in the SEC’s initial ruling (the underwriter was tagged for the manipulation), the case is still open. In July, his latest endeavor, an affiliate of TheBigHub called TheBigStore.com, was forced into Chapter 7 bankruptcy by its distributors, Ingram Micro, Ingram Books and Page Digital. TheBigStore is contesting the bankruptcy in court. All told, according to lawsuits and bankruptcy filings, TheBigStore owes about $8.2 million to suppliers, workers and customers. And that’s the rub to investors such as Amenta, who said he believed in the company almost to the very end, only to sell his shares for a loss of $20,000. And now, as the backers and management of TheBigHub feel the squeeze of suppliers and angry investors, they’re lashing out at people who at one time wanted to believe. For Amenta, it’s a little hard to swallow. “This is outrageous,” he said. Related Articles from The Industry Standard: SEC Tells Teen Trader to Pay Up And Now the Big Bankruptcy SEC Alleges 15 Pump-and-Dump Scams Copyright � 2000 The Industry Standard

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