New court order helps small business protect themselves from on-line attacks on their business or reputation
Important Tip The Communications Decency Act immunizes web sites from liability for content posted by third parties.

Anonymous defamation and harassment through blogs, Yelp, Twitter, and phony email accounts can prove frustrating and vexing for small businesses targeted by such behavior. You may have read in the papers about a recent example of this, in which a blogger engaged in anonymous name calling of model Liskula Cohen.
In an effort to uncover the blogger’s identity, Cohen filed a lawsuit. Such suits, which typically name “John Doe” as a placeholder defendant, can be used to force the disclosure of blogger or email senders’ identities. Once the suit is filed, the plaintiff then serves subpoenas on third party internet service providers, blog hosts, and/or email service providers, depending on the facts of the case.
In my experience with these lawsuits, third parties are reluctant to comply with the subpoenas out of concern for their customers’ privacy and laws that prohibit disclosure of stored communications. Nonetheless, narrowly tailored subpoenas can often be used to obtain the IP and e-mail addresses of bloggers, which in turn can often be used to uncover the offender’s identity.
In Cohen’s case, she successfully obtained a court order requiring Google to disclose the e-mail and IP addresses associated with the offending blog. The culprit, Rosemary Port, has stated that she intends to sue Google for disclosing her identity for breaching “its fiduciary duty to protect her expectation of anonymity.” Most observers doubt the suit will succeed. 
This lawsuit serves as a reminder that small businesses are sometimes able to uncover the identity of persons engaged in defamation, cyber-crime, and trade secret misappropriation.  In some cases, it simply is not possible. But in others, you may find answers by issuing subpoenas to the right parties. The potential success of this strategy will vary depending on several factors, including the unknown person’s internet savy, the web sites they operate on, and how long you wait to issue the subpoena (since many web sites do not retain user information after a certain period of time). 
But the suit also reminds us that, beyond ordering the disclosure of a culprit’s identity, it is difficult to hold third party websites responsible for their role as mere passive hosts of content published by third party users. Companies like Google often find themselves in a Catch-22, being sued for refusing to disclose users’ identities, then being sued again when they disclose it. In practice, the courts are, at most, likely to order disclosure of identifying information, and will not impose liability for damages.  At the very least though, “John Doe” lawsuits are often successful in putting a stop to anonymous online harassment.

Additional Information
Important Tip: 
The Communications Decency Act immunizes web sites from liability for content posted by third parties.
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