Court attacks Dutch internet anonymity
By verdict of 24 June 2004 the Appeals Court of Amsterdam in the Netherlands has to a large extent limited the freedom of internet users to express their opinion anonimously. The main issue in this principal case was whether internet provider Lycos was required to hand over the personal data of one of its subscribers to a third party. This third party, the Dutch lawyer and stamp trader Pessers, claimed this subscriber had treated him unlawfully. The appeal verdict largely confirms an ealier verdict by a judge at the District Court of Haarlem on 11 September 2003, against which Lycos appealed.
Mr Pessers trades in postage stamps on the auction portal eBay and was accused of fraud by a Lycos subscriber, who published Mr Pesser’s name on his website and provided an e-mail address for anyone to report fraudulent incidents they felt Mr Pessers had committed. After complaints from Mr Pessers, the site was removed and the text replaced with "Site removed to avoid legal actions!!". Subsequently Pessers demanded the personal data from the subscriber, but Lycos refused and was taken to court. After the initial verdict, Lycos did hand over the data, but only to find out the address data were false. Pessers started another procedure, to force Lycos to find other ways to retrieve the correct information, but that demand was declined on 1 April 2004. However, this case instigated a debate in the Netherlands whether internet service providers should be obliged to collect the correct information from their subscribers.
Although the Appeals Court acknowledges that the content on the website was not 'apparent unlawful', the court nevertheless felt that Lycos was required to hand over the data.
Explaining its ruling, the court said that it weighed the interest of the ISP and its subscriber against that of the third-party (Pessers), and also considered whether Pessers had a genuine interest in this information and whether there were other, less-intrusive means of obtaining the information.
"The consequence of this ruling is that ISPs will be less cautious about providing third parties with personal details. After all, the provider can be held liable," said internet lawyer Christiaan Alberdingk Thijm.
Perhaps even more disturbing, this ruling also increases the possibilities for civil rightsholders, such as the music industry to demand personal data from music-file downloaders.
Lycos vs. Pessers appeal verdict (in Dutch, 24.07.2004)
Amsterdam Appeals Court upholds decision requiring ISP to disclose personal data (12.07.2004)