Losing Their Cool

Anonymous gripes spawn an Internet privacy brouhaha

History Firsthand Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens Begins at 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays
September 9-10 and 16-17
If ever there were a competition for our own local Mr. Zeitgeist, Hudson's Gregory P. Hackett would make a compelling candidate.

Over the past few years, after all, Hackett's professional life has been straight out of the American Boom Times playbook: Start a consulting business, get rich, sell it to some bigger company, get even richer.

And when you're done with that, become a high-tech hero to Internet privacy activists.

That's what happened in May, when Hackett filed what was believed to be the first-ever lawsuit against the world's most popular portal to the World Wide Web -- Santa Clara, California-based Yahoo! -- for violating his privacy.

The Internet company, Hackett claimed, ratted him out after he'd pseudonymously criticized a Miami-based consulting company, AnswerThink, on one of Yahoo!'s message boards.

"The case is very important, because it pits very fundamental concepts of freedom of speech and associated rights to privacy against large-funded companies that are not accustomed to the platform the Internet provides for any individual to have a soapbox," says Megan E. Gray, the attorney who filed the federal lawsuit on Hackett's behalf.

Indeed, privacy advocates believed that Hackett's case might set a precedent for online companies' legal obligations regarding the practice of revealing user identities. But Hackett's stature as standard-bearer for Internet privacy has turned out to be short-lived. In early August, the case was dismissed as part of a settlement between Hackett and AnswerThink in a separate lawsuit. (Hackett could not be reached for comment, and neither side's attorneys would talk about the terms of the confidential settlement.)

The genesis of the Yahoo! saga actually goes back to late 1999, when -- under the alias Aquacool_2000 -- Hackett began posting missives about AnswerThink, an electronic commerce consulting company based in Miami, on Yahoo! Finance's message boards for investors. Over the next several months, Aquacool would post 30 messages about the company -- publicly traded on the NASDAQ as ANSR -- many of which criticized AnswerThink's leaders.

"The management of this company is a joke," notes a characteristic Aquacool message from October 1999. "Just because you sucker some [venture capitalists] to back you and then ride the [initial public offering] wave doesn't mean that you know how to steer a ship."

Nor was it just broad swipes at management. "One of them is an arrested adolescent whose favorite word is 'turd,'" he wrote of top company officials in late January. "One is so dull that a 5-watt bulb gives him a run for the money. And the third believes that the faster you go in your car, the smarter you get."

"The worst part is that the marketing leadership in this firm doesn't even know how to spell the word 'marketing,'" he wrote about an AnswerThink public relations campaign in early February.

His less-than-optimistic take on the company made Aquacool a black sheep of the AnswerThink message board. When he pooh-poohed the company's performance even after its stock price rose in January, he was roundly vilified on the board. "You really suck," wrote one message poster. "If I could find you I would kick your ass. Just let us have our day, moron."

That sentiment was clearly shared by another group of people keenly interested in the company's stock -- AnswerThink officials. On February 23, the company filed a so-called "cybersmear" complaint in federal court against Aquacool_2000 and 11 other "John Does" -- anonymous individuals who had posted messages about the company on various boards under aliases -- for defamation and breach of contract. Included in the complaint was an injunction to restrain speech.

The company then subpoenaed Yahoo! to disclose the real identity of Aquacool and other message posters, who must register with the portal in order to participate on the site's boards. Yahoo! promptly gave up the information. Most important, it did so without informing Aquacool or any of the other John Does, which would have given them the opportunity to fight the subpoenas.

Aquacool, it turned out, was no ordinary message poster. It was Hackett, of course. And he had sold his own consulting company, The Hackett Group, to AnswerThink for more than $20 million in cash and stock in 1997. He was also still working for the company as a consultant at the time AnswerThink filed the suit.

That changed soon enough. Following the revelation, AnswerThink filed an individual lawsuit against Aquacool in which it identified him as Hackett, accusing him of defamation and breach of his employment contract. The company also fired Hackett the day before he was to receive just under $900,000 in consulting fees, according to court records.

In early May, Hackett, as Aquacool, turned around and filed a counterclaim against AnswerThink. In addition, he took the unprecedented step of filing a separate lawsuit against Yahoo! for violating his privacy by giving up his identity to AnswerThink.

The dismissal of the suit hardly means the issue has been resolved, however. Even before the Aquacool lawsuit, Yahoo! voluntarily changed its policy regarding notifying message posters about subpoenas, though the company has yet to incorporate the change into its posted privacy policy. Still, privacy advocates worry about the lack of legal precedent -- and the ignorance of many Internet users -- regarding anonymous messages on the Internet.

"If the legal precedents develop in a way that makes it extremely easy to unmask people participating in online forums, then I think it's only a matter of time before we see attempts to unmask the identities of people posting in HIV message boards," says David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy organization. "You can sort of spin out all sorts of scenarios where somebody with some ax to grind can easily go after somebody who they don't think should have the right to remain anonymous."

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