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When Aquacool_2000 badmouthed his bosses on a Yahoo message board, he did so thinking the cloak of anonymity would protect him. But soon his employers found him out — and fired him. Now Aquacool_2000 has filed a novel suit in Los Angeles federal court charging Yahoo with violating his constitutional and contractual rights to privacy when it disclosed identifying information about him to his employers without informing him first. This isn’t the first time the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company’s privacy policy has been questioned. Yahoo has been under scrutiny from watchdog groups — such as the American Civil Liberties Union — for more than a year for what they say is a failure to adhere to its privacy policy. “Yahoo is the most notorious company for giving no notice to users before disclosing their identity,” said Christopher Hanson, a lawyer with the ACLU who specializes in Internet speech. John Doe, an Ohio man who used the screen name “Aquacool_2000″, frequently posted colorful comments about his employer, Clevelend, Ohio-based AnswerThink Consulting Group Inc., on Yahoo’s AnswerThink message board. Yahoo maintains message boards for all publicly traded companies. In a description of the company’s management team, for instance, Aquacool_2000 wrote: “One of them is an arrested adolescent whose favorite word is ‘turd.’ One is so dull that a 5-watt bulb gives him a run for the money.” Aquacool_2000 believed his privacy was protected. After all, as his attorney Megan Gray of Los Angeles’ Baker & Hostetler put it, “Yahoo’s entire Web site is infused with the ‘TRUSTe’ [privacy protection company] symbol and statements of the company’s commitment to privacy.” Aquacool_2000′s employers, however, filed a suit against him when they read the comments he had posted and subpoenaed Yahoo to disclose identifying personal information. Without Aquacool_2000′s permission or knowledge, Yahoo did so, and within weeks, Aquacool_2000 was without a job. And without a hefty cash bonus he had anticipated receiving from AnswerThink. In addition, he was stripped of the large block of soon-to-vest stocks he’d held as a shareholder of the 3-year-old company. It was only after he was fired that he contacted Yahoo to find out if the company had disclosed his identity to his employers. Although Yahoo’s privacy policy states that no personally identifiable information will be made available to third parties without a user’s permission, Yahoo general counsel John Place said the company is “not required to do it under our privacy policy.” “But we’ve been doing it anyway,” he stated, adding that no one connected to the suit contacted him before he received the complaint Thursday. Place said that in response to users’ desires, since April the company has been notifying users of subpoenas and giving them 15 days to initiate action to quash the subpoena before turning over information to third parties. “I don’t know that I believe them,” said Gray, asserting that Yahoo complied with a different subpoena April 7 without notifying the user. “And under the California constitution, they are required to notify. It is implied in Yahoo’s privacy policy and a reasonable person would expect to be notified.” “Yahoo can change tomorrow,” she added. “We want a court order to require them to do this.” Yet Place contends that Yahoo had done nothing wrong. “We have been recognized by privacy advocates as a leader in the industry,” he said. “We are extremely proud of our record when it comes to user privacy,” he added. “We have always been a user-driven company.” But enonymous.com, an Internet privacy company that ranks online sites, designated Yahoo as a company that “may share your personally identifiable information without your explicit permission,” and awarded it only one out of four stars. Yahoo is not alone — Msn.com, Earthlink.com, Talkcity.com and Amazon.com are just a few members of this one-star tribe. According to Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, a Federal Trade Commission survey of major e-commerce Web sites found that only about 20 percent met FTC standards for protecting consumer privacy. “There is no real case law on this yet,” Hanson said. He has represented several people in so-called “cybersmear” cases, though each case has involved anonymous Internet users attempting to quash subpoenas in order to prevent third parties from learning their identity. Typically what happens, says Hanson, is that corporations or public offices come across Internet postings they don’t like, so they hire a lawyer and pay the filing fee to file a lawsuit — which he says may be no more than five or six pages. Then the party files a subpoena, which requires no approval by a judge and costs nothing. “These suits don’t seem to be primarily about defamation, but about forcing disclosure,” he added. Once the online company has given away the target’s identity, he says, the case is dismissed. Gray says the reason an online company has never been sued before is that “many people never even know … people aren’t aware that this information is being given out.” And as a result, “the person never gets the chance to fight back,” she said. “Employers can turn around and fire you without telling you why.” David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., has been following cybersmear lawsuits for the past few years. “Until Yahoo’s policy is changed and others that don’t provide notice change theirs, users’ online privacy is very much at risk,” he said. “I’d like to think this issue isn’t going to go away until policy changes are made.”

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