The Texas Supreme Court could write the rules on one of the most important issues of the Internet age...whether an individual has the write to be anonymous on line.
1200 WOAI's Stephanie Narvaez reports the justices have been asked to decide whether an Ohio company called Reynolds and Reynolds can unearth a person who made negative comments about the firms' merger with a Texas company on a Google sponsored blogging site.
Reynolds and Reynolds says its reputation and its valuation were damaged by the comments, which it says appear to have come from an employee, and it has the right to be able to fight back and refute the comments.
Adrianos Facchetti, a California-based First Amendment attorney, says your rights to be anonymous on line are murky at best.
"In the next several years it could change as courts are catching up with how the Internet works," he told 1200 WOAI news. "People should just simply use their common sense. If it's not something they would say to somebody's face, they probably shouldn't say it on the Internet."
The right to be anonymous on line dates from the very beginning of the Internet in the 1990s, and has led to a wide open style of communication which can be very hurtful, as people who hide behind screen names routinely make shameful, racist, and frequently incorrect statements.
Supporters of that anonymity point to free speech rights, and cite the ability of posters to maintain their identity a secret for major cultural changes which the Internet has inspired. But opponents point to criminal activities like the recently shut down 'Silk Road' on line site, as well as the damage to reputations that can be caused by Internet postings. Many companies have even begun suing posters for reviews written on Yelp.com and other sites.
"There are certain procedures that protect people who make anonymous comments," Fracchetti said. "Now it seems like the trend is to make it easier for people who feel that they have been defamed or wronged to discover the identity of the anonymous poster."
Google and other web sites have fought attempts to unmask anonymous posters, and some news organizations have simply stopped allowing comments altogether rather than comply with requests for the names of posters.
Fracchetti says despite new ways to track Internet Protocol addresses to certain computers, sophisticated posters, and operations like the Silk Road site, can go to great lengths to avoid having their identities revealed. He says that would be the challenge for companies like Reynolds and Reynolds, even if the ruling goes in their favor.
"If the person is really sophisticated, they can make it almost impossible for somebody to find out who they are," he said.
A ruling in the case is expected early next year.