March 31, 2009 -- A California judge has denied Web forum Topix.com's request to withhold identifying information for 178 anonymous online commenters who are the targets of a defamation suit.
The ruling, filed with the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, Calif., Friday, denied the company's motion to quash the subpoena and instructed it to meet with the couple filing the defamation suit to determine which documents are relevant to their case.
In February, a Texas judge ordered the Web site to turn over identifying information about the anonymous posters who had attacked the couple after they were accused of sexual assault.
Although the new ruling denied the company's motion to quash the subpoena, it granted the company's motion for a protective order "to protect the identities of the anonymous Internet posters."
Despite the qualified decision, Mark and Rhonda Lesher, the Clarksville, Texas, couple who filed the lawsuit in February, said the ruling brings them closer to identifying, and prosecuting, the anonymous detractors who they claim posted thousands of defamatory comments about them online.
"I'm tickled to death," Rhonda Lesher said. "I'm thinking we may now get to the bottom of this."
William Demond, the Leshers' Austin-based attorney, said he was pleased about the court's decision.
"It says they must comply with the subpoena and figure out which information is relevant," Demond said. "We intend to move this thing forward pretty quickly. There's no reason not to."
But, Topix CEO Chris Tolles, who filed the motion to quash the subpoena because he said the company found the Leshers' request for information "overbroad and burdensome," said the ruling didn't outright order the company to turn over identifying information and opened the door for a middle ground.
"It's not a slam dunk for either one here," Tolles said. "There's a negative effect on their ask because the judge has qualified it in some way."
Pointing to the judge's decision to grant the protective order, he said, "We got some of what we wanted. ... What will end up happening here is some compromise. The judge's order does not compel us to turn everything over to them."
Small Town Gossip Mill Explodes Online
Mark Lesher, 62, and his wife, Rhonda, 49, first made news in Texas when the couple, along with a man who works on their ranch, were accused of sexual assault by a woman in their small northeast Texas community.
Before the three were indicted on the charges, a steady stream of attacks on the Web forum Topix.com started to flow.
In January, a jury found the couple and their ranch hand not guilty on all charges.
Since reports of the rape allegations began to surface last year, more than 25,000 comments, on about 70 threads related to the trial, have been posted on Topix message boards for anyone with a search engine to see.
Rhonda Lesher runs a successful day spa and her husband is a prominent attorney. But comments on Topix, which have no basis in fact, Mark Lesher said, accuse the couple of murder, encouraging pedophilia, drug abuse and other "horrendous" crimes that materially attack their characters.
Although the couple feel vindicated by the not-guilty verdict, the couple said the anonymous posters who have made their lives "torture" should be held accountable for the damage they have done.
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."