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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Privacy-Violation Suit Lodged Against Yahoo

LOS ANGELES -- An Internet user who lost his job after posting remarks online about his employer has filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit accusing Yahoo Inc. of violating his privacy rights by illegally disclosing his identity.

The suit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, opens a new front in a privacy battle that has escalated over the past year as companies have increasingly turned to the courts to unmask their online critics. The suit marks the first attempt to punish an Internet company for accommodating such requests, which usually come in the form of a subpoena.

It accuses Yahoo of violating the "constitutional and contractual rights to privacy'' of an Ohio man who, using the pseudonym "Acquacool-2000,'' posted disparaging remarks on a Yahoo message board about his bosses at AnswerThink Consulting Group Inc., a New York-based technology consulting firm.

David Sobel, counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said the suit could lead to an important judicial precedent "on the obligations of online companies.'' Yahoo's practice of turning over names of users "is a lousy policy and might be illegal,'' he said.

Yahoo declined to comment on the matter except to say that the company "takes privacy very seriously."

The name of the plaintiff in the suit was not revealed. His Los Angeles-based attorney, Megan Gray, said her client is seeking unspecified monetary damages, as well as an injunction forcing Yahoo to warn users before it discloses their identities to a third party, something the company said it began doing just last month.

Gray said the man was fired from his job at AnswerThink after his name was revealed to the company by Yahoo. Gray said Yahoo's actions violate her client's right to privacy under the California constitution, as well as the assurances of anonymity Yahoo makes on its site.

Gray said her client also had sued AnswerThink, which could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

The suit follows a number of privacy disputes in recent years between Internet companies and their members or users. In 1998, for instance, America Online settled a lawsuit after admitting that it had revealed to U.S. Navy officials the identity of an officer who disclosed in an anonymous AOL posting that he was gay.

But Thursday's suit stems from what has become a far more pervasive privacy problem: the anonymity of Internet users who frequent stock market message boards.

Yahoo operates thousands of such message boards, with one on almost every publicly traded company. Investors flock to them, usually swapping benign stock tips but occasionally launching diatribes against companies and their executives.

Many companies argue that these postings are sometimes libelous, untrue and designed to drive down their stock prices. So dozens of companies have struck back in recent years by employing a simple legal maneuver. They file a "John Doe'' lawsuit against their unidentified critic, then send a subpoena to Yahoo seeking his or her real name.

Yahoo has a policy of complying with such requests without evaluating the merit of the underlying suit. And the company adds that its privacy policy, which users must sign, includes a warning that it will disclose a user's identity when it is "legally compelled'' to do so.