Lawsuit Cracks Open Online Anonymity

But even assuming Topix turns over its information, identifying online commenters is not a simple task. Unless the commenters registered with Topix, which most did not do, Tolles said all the company would be able to reveal about each person is his or her IP (Internet protocol) address, or the unique number assigned to each computer.

Once the couple has the IP addresses, it would still have to go to the Internet service providers (ISPs) to identify the actual users. Assuming Topix releases the IP addresses in March, it could still be months before the ISPs turn over the information they have.

And, even then, the Leshers could find that the long trail of digital breadcrumbs leads them to library and coffee shop computers used by scores of people, instead of those in homes and offices used by an identifiable few.

'I've Got a Right to an Opinion'

But the Leshers, and other local residents familiar with the Topix threads, are convinced that if they get the chance to face their online opponents in court, they'll likely meet the people who pulled them into the courtroom in the first place, and their allies.

Most of the posters appear to be in no hurry to unmask themselves. But Jones, the truckdriver who posted under the name Wounded, said he's ready for the March 6 court date.

He said he used to be on Topix "every day, all day long." The comment that has made him a target in the Lesher's lawsuit is one of thousands of comments he has posted on a variety of subjects in the past couple of years.

Compared to many of the other commenters on threads about the Leshers, Jones, again, seems to be one of the milder and less prolific.

But he confirmed that under the alias Wounded, he wrote: "Either way you aren't going to sway my opinion about the DRUGS and the LESHER's."

Jones, however, doesn't regret his comments and said he has a "right to [his] opinion."

Even though he's a target in the Lesher's lawsuit, he said he's actually prepared to stand with the couple against Topix.

The site removed him earlier this year when he started commenting about how the site itself isn't properly moderated and has allowed people to post that they are going to kill him or rape his wife and child, despite Web site guidelines that say such comments are not allowed. He also said his address and directions to his home have been posted to the site.

"They are very angry at me because of [my comments about] incompetent moderators," Jones told

And he said he wouldn't be in this position if Topix had been doing its job.

"I just as soon see it fail. If they can't moderate it, they should pull the plug on it," he said.

The Law as an Accomplice

Legal experts, however, emphasized that the law protects Web sites like Topix. Even if the comments are considered defamatory by a court of law, Topix has no legal obligation to take the content down.

Defenders of the legal landscape argue that a change could stifle open discussion and free speech. But others maintain that in stories like this, regardless of who emerges, once the veil of anonymity is lifted, it is the law itself that is a co-conspirator.

"The law as it currently stands is an accomplice because it creates no incentive whatsoever for Web sites to review or police themselves from content that is potentially devastating to real people and real lives," Michael Fertik, a lawyer who specializes in online defamation, told

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