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Groundbreaking Case Seeks to Lift Anonymity on Computer Networks

September 15, 1995

CHICAGO (AP) _ Anonymity and freedom of speech in cyberspace are being challenged by a Caribbean resort owner in a court case that could dramatically restrict the rights of computer network users.

The resort owner and a scuba instructor claim they were defamed on a computer bulletin board by an anonymous user, and they asked a judge this week to force America Online to reveal the name of the subscriber so they can sue the person for libel.

If Arnold Bowker and John Joslin are successful in obtaining the name, it could have serious implications for millions of people who use the Internet to think, write and debate in a world where they are identified by their ideas, not their names.

Technology experts fear a morass of court cases that would hold computer users accountable for what they say anonymously.

``What this case brings up is the specter of millions of libel suits every time there’s a disagreement on the Internet,″ said Daniel Weitzner, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. ``I think it’s a critical issue.″

The motion filed in Cook County Circuit Court charges that Bowker’s dive shop at the Carib Inn in Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles, and instructor John Joslin were defamed by a message posted on an America Online bulletin board for scuba divers by a user identified as ``Jenny TRR.″ The bulletin board is accessible to the company’s 3.5 million subscribers.

In June, Jenny TRR wrote that she had a bad experience while learning to dive at the Carib Inn with an instructor who she said used drugs.

``Since I’m a little new diving needless to say diving with a stoned instructor was a little scarry. ... I won’t mention his name but he’s the only white instructor there,″ the computer user wrote.

According to Bowker, a frequent visitor to the Carib Inn told him of the allegations. Much of the Carib Inn’s business depends on communication with customers via computer, said Lawrence Levin, the attorney for Bowker and Joslin.

When Bowker investigated the charges made by Jenny TRR and found them untrue, he posted a message on the same bulletin board rebutting them and asking Jenny TRR to recant, Levin said.

When no apology came, Bowker decided to sue for damages, claiming his business had suffered. But first he must find out the identity of Jenny TRR.

``The person who used this abused the privilege of being able to communicate with people worldwide on America Online,″ Levin said. ``This has serious repercussions for businesses.″

Several calls seeking comment from officials at America Online were not immediately returned Friday.

Abraham Haddad, chairman of the computer science department at Northwestern University, said the anonymity of cyberspace should be maintained as long as it was not used to commit a crime.

``There’s really a need to protect people’s privacy as long as no laws have been broken,″ Haddad said. ``What would happen is people would think twice about saying things publicly. That really would be terrible.″

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