Couple Inches Closer to Unveiling Anonymous Posters

Targeting the 178 Posters

In their 365-page lawsuit, filed in February, the Leshers name the 178 pseudonyms that posted the most defamatory messages. But because of the way Topix is set up, they believe it's entirely possible that far fewer than 178 people were actually responsible for the posts.

Anyone can post on Topix without giving up any personal information. That makes it very easy for commenters to impersonate one another or for one to adopt several names.

Commenters named "lou," "Hellcat," "ilbedipt" and "Awareness" appear to be among the most prolific and vicious. But the same person could potentially be behind all the pseudonyms, or several people could be behind each.

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 Demond told ABCNews.com that their actions are not unprecedented.

Piercing the 'Veil of Anonymity'

"This is not unusual as far as to pierce the veil of anonymity," the 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 Bread Crumbs

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

"We are not averse to a reasonable solution," Tolles told ABCNews.com at the time.

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.

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

Regardless, the Leshers said they are determined to pursue prosecution.

"The one thing we have is our reputation and credibility," Mark Lesher told ABCNews.com. "The people who have hid behind the anonymity of the Internet need to be held accountable and brought to justice."

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