Friday, August 6, 2004
Suit Claims Yahoo Fails to Police Abusive Speech
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A proposed class action filed on behalf of an attorney in Los Angeles Superior Court charges Yahoo! Inc. fails to live up to claims it polices abusive speech by members on its Internet message boards, the plaintiff’s lawyer said yesterday.
David J. Weinman of the downtown business litigation firm of Galton & Helm said the suit alleging unfair competition and false advertising was filed Wednesday on behalf of one of the firm’s senior partners, Stephen H. Galton.
Galton claims he was subjected to a stream of abuse from Yahoo members after he registered as a user and posted a message. Galton’s message, Weinstein said, came in response to a message attacking the chief executive officer of insurer UnamProvident, a firm client.
Galton’s message challenged that posting, by a user identified as “mumioler,” as an instance of abuse and tried to point out the difference between responsible criticism and irresponsible character assassination, according the allegations of the complaint.
Over the next three months, Galton was himself subjected to a “barrage of harassing, defamatory and abusive messages” posted by “mumioler” and two other members, the complaint asserts. Yahoo refused to identify the posters, Weinstein explained.
The complaint alleges that Yahoo’s advertising is misleading, since the terms of service to which users agree when they sign up bar posting abusive messages and state that the company has “the right (but not the obligation)” to remove objectionable postings. Though violation of those standards is a basis for terminating a user’s account under the terms of service, Yahoo rarely takes that action, the suit asserts.
“Yahoo’s current polity of doing nothing is a sham, is misleading to the public, and is unfair in giving greater protection to users of its message boards who post anonymous abusive messages, than it does to persons who have been injured by such messages,” the lawsuit claims.
Yahoo repeatedly rebuffed Galton’s requests that it identify the abusive posters, Weinstein said, responding that its policy was to provide user information only in response to a subpoena or court order. The lawyer eventually filed a suit naming Doe defendants and succeeded in tracking down “mumioler” in North Carolina.
That user is now being sued for defamation, Weinstein said.
The complaint lists some 65 abusive words or phrases applied to Galton by the three users, among them “shyster,” “unethical,” “vampire,” “walletboy,” “real big LA hotshot,” “outstandingly stupid and ignorant,” and “attunaloonybarister.” All are “false as they pertain the Plaintiff,” the complaint asserts. Several postings cited in the complaint appeared to suggest that the lawyer is a heavy drinker, and one included graphic sexual language.
Weinstein acknowledged that some of the listed appellations may not be defamatory, but said they showed the kind of “beyond the pale” abuse that Yahoo declined to regulate. He said Yahoo does not check the identities provided by users when they register, and permits individuals to have as many as six accounts under different user names.
He conceded that enforcing standards of civility on Internet message boards may be an uphill battle, but asserted that did not excuse Yahoo from living up to the obligations required under its own terms of service.
“It can be stopped,” Weinstein said. “They don’t do anything, though.”
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company