Lawsuit Cracks Open Online Anonymity

Later, however, Coyel backtracked. He acknowledged that he might have posted on Topix but emphasized that he used his name and did not post anything derogatory about the Leshers.

"I believe I'd gone on there one time. I'm not positive about it," he said. "It's a freedom of speech blog."

But although Coyel said he himself had not posted negative comments on Topix, he acknowledged recognizing at least one of the posters.

According to the Leshers' lawsuit, a poster who identified himself as "Budweiser" made several disparaging comments about the couple on Topix.

On one occasion, he wrote: "I personally talked to D.J. An 11 year old boy and he tole me about the dope you gave his mother and the perverted stuff you wanted him to say."

On another, he posted: "When the gloves come off you will be the first to know ... Me and Pick got a present for you that will lite up your perverted life …"

Although Coyel said he had not seen Budweiser in years, and denied knowing his real name, he said that the two were acquaintances and he'd known him for years.

"He's a junkyard dog. He's a super nice guy, but he'll do anything if somebody pisses him off. He'll do anything. He's crazy," Coyel said.

He said that if the Leshers' lawsuit confirmed that the poster was indeed Budweiser, he wasn't worried. The one who should be worried, Coyel said, is Mark Lesher.

"He's fixing to be in a world he has no knowledge about," he said.

Piercing the 'Veil of Anonymity'

For those who frequent the threads of online forums and comfortably post comments behind the shield of anonymity, the Leshers' suit might sound surprising, or even alarming. But their lawyer, William Demond, told ABCNews.com that their actions are not unprecedented.

"This is not unusual as far as to pierce the veil of anonymity," the Austin-based attorney said. "There are certainly cases out there [although] nothing on this scale. Nothing quite this large."

Last year, lawyers for two female Yale Law School students unmasked anonymous posters who libeled the women on the college and graduate school admissions Web forum AutoAdmit.com.

But in a 2005 case, a Delaware court ruled against unveiling a blogger who had been slapped with a defamation lawsuit by a local councilman.

There's no standardized procedure, Demond said, but if a court finds that anonymous comments meet the definition of defamation, it can instruct a Web site to turn over any relevant information it has about the posters.

Following the Trail of Digital Breadcrumbs

Topix initially indicated that it would likely cooperate with the Tarrant County judge who ordered the Web site to disclose identifying information. But on Thursday the company filed a motion to quash the subpoena with the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, California.

"We are not averse to a reasonable solution," Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, told ABCNews.com. But he said the request was "over broad and burdensome."

Tolles said the company takes privacy rights seriously and was a bit troubled by the large number of names included in the lawsuit and the implications it could have for its business.

"We have a business to run and that does give people the right to speak anonymously," he said.

However, if the Leshers' lawyer submitted a request that targeted fewer posters, he said Topix might be willing to comply.

At a hearing on March 27, a judge will rule on the company's motion.

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