Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Federal judge protects anonymity on "trash talk" boards about companies; another "reputation management" company is on stage

A company in Pennsylvania, USA Technologies, tried to subpoena the identity of an online critic, but a federal judge in San Francisco denied the motion, after Electronic Frontier Foundation argued that the First Amendment protects anonymity and pseudonymity of otherwise protected speech.

The critic was user “Stokklerk” who tried to criticize the company for lack of earnings and high compensation for executives (such as CEO George Jenser, Jr.).

The company made what sounds like a frivolous claim that the user was trying to manipulate stock prices on a “trash talk” message board.

The EFF story is here and the staff attorney defending the speaker was Matt Zimmermann.

There have been cases in the past where employees with inside knowledge of companies have been fired or even prosecuted for setting up websites to manipulate stock prices. There was a notorious case in North Carolina in early 1999 which was an early incident in the (at the time) slowly growing awareness of the “risks” that could be posed by the “wild web”. Generally, employees of companies should be careful when commenting on their employers’ stock performance on investor “trash boards” which were already getting popular by 1998. I have memories of those days, before 9/11 (and even before the dot-com bubble bust), when people would speculate about “capitulation.”

Companies, like individuals (and especially smaller businesses), may become very sensitive about their online reputations. Today I stumbled across another online reputation company, “Reputation Management Consultants”, link here. This company says it can offer “inoculation” (rather like a vaccine shot in medicine), which appears to consist of manipulating search engine results in order to leave the most positive impression.

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