Malcontents intent on bashing companies on electronic bulletin boards may want to think twice before hitting the send key.
Since the dot-com bubble burst, Internet law experts have seen a steep increase in the number of "John Doe" suits filed by companies seeking to unmask and stop electronic critics. Often, they are successful in finding the cybersmear artists and enjoining them from continuing their attacks, said legal experts.
More than 100 lawsuits have been filed in the last year by such companies as Credit Suisse First Boston, Dendrite International, E*Trade Group, Fruit of the Loom, Owens Corning and others, according to CyberSecuritiesLaw, a Web site published by Glasser LegalWorks that tracks the litigation.
"People need to realize when they do the online posting bashing a company that they can be caught pretty easily," said Christopher Reeder, an attorney at the Kaye Scholer law firms Los Angeles office.
Not everyone is happy with the onslaught of suits. Free speech advocates believe sites with bulletin boards — Raging Bull, Silicon Investor, Yahoo! and others — have been too willing to turn over the identities of online posters, effectively quashing the right of those individuals to speak anonymously.
A few online posters have countersued to halt corporate lawsuits aimed at divulging their identities. The John Does Foundation has set up a Web site, www.johndoes.org, to offer support for defendants.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that anonymous speech is protected offline. We think it should be protected online," said Christopher A. Hansen, senior counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.
But VirtualSellers.com, a Chicago software company, sued two people who posted messages using pseudonyms on a Raging Bull bulletin board claiming to have inside information about the company and damaging its stock price, said Dennis Sinclair, the companys president.
"The regulations should be changed so that people who want to post on the Internet have to disclose who they are," Sinclair said.
Skechers USA, the publicly held Manhattan Beach, Calif., maker of trendy shoes, filed a lawsuit last summer after someone impersonated Robert Greenberg, the companys chief executive, and posted messages on the Yahoo! financial bulletin board claiming the company might file for bankruptcy.
Skechers filed its lawsuit against jlee_atx and mwein-berg_skx, who turned out to be the same person, and tracked him down. It was able to get an undisclosed settlement and a statement from jlee_atx posted on message boards for 10 straight days apologizing for spreading "false and negative" information, said attorney Reeder. His firm represented Skechers.
About 98 percent of the cases settle out of court, said Bill Weisberg, counsel at law firm Reed Smith. The cases generally involve deep-pocket plaintiffs going after people with few assets, he said. So most cases do not carry big cash settlements. The companies simply want the posters to stop.
Filing a John Doe lawsuit should be a last resort for a company, Weisberg said.
"The irony is its extremely rare anyone of any consequence reads these bulletin postings," Weisberg said. "A lot of these cases are more trouble than they are worth."