Friday, July 10, 1998

Court Orders ISPs To Identify Subscribers

by John Borland, jborland@cmp.com

A Canadian court has ordered a group of nine ISPs to hand over names and addresses of subscribers who criticized a troubled company on an online message board.

Ontario-based Philip Service has used court orders in both the United States and Canada to track down Internet users who made sharply negative comments about the company on Yahoo's financial message boards. After contesting the order in court, one of the Canadian ISPs said Thursday it agreed to release subscribers' names, addresses, and telephone numbers.

Philip is a waste-management and metal-recycling company struggling under accusations of financial irregularities. Its stock has plunged in recent months, after it was forced to restate earnings for 1997.

Since late 1997, a high-traffic Yahoo message board has provided a forum for Philip stockholders and other interested parties. Many of the messages have been sharply critical of company management and practices, and some have included anonymous personal attacks on company officials.

Philip has charged many of the messages defamed company employees, issued stalking threats, and included racial slurs.

In a statement Thursday, Canadian ISP Weslink Datalink said it released the name and address of at least one subscriber to Philip officials, as ordered by a Canadian judge. The ISP said the order barred it from giving further details of the case.

Philip won the court order in closed proceedings, without testimony from any of the ISPs or individuals involved, attorneys said. "The original order was made without notice to anybody, including us", said Weslink attorney Mark Zega. "The first we heard of it was when we were served."

Weslink did fight the "very broad" order in court, and was successful in narrowing its provisions somewhat, Zega added.

"If we're served with a valid subpoena or court order or search warrant, we will respond."
-- Tricia Primrose,
America Online

America Online spokeswoman Tricia Primrose confirmed that AOL's Canadian branch had also been served with the court order. But the order must target the ISP's U.S. headquarters before any information can be released, she said.

AOL is likely to comply with the order if it is valid, she said. "If we're served with a valid subpoena or court order or search warrant, we will respond", Primrose said. But AOL also tries to notify its members that their personal information is under subpoena, at least as far as individual court orders allow, she added.

Philip apparently was able to track down the authors of the anonymous messages by tracing IP addresses obtained from Yahoo.

Yahoo, based in Santa Clara, Calif., confirmed a local court had served the company with a subpoena on the issue. Philip officials said the U.S. subpoena was served June 5, while the Canadian court order was issued June 25. Most of the Yahoo postings are still archived online, although Philip spokeswoman Lynda Kuhn said some of the most defamatory messages had been removed.

Philip has not yet sued any of the individuals who posted to the board. "We're still in the process of getting information", said Kuhn. "We have to evaluate that information and see what's appropriate."

Copyright © 1998 by CMP Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.