Yahoo Sued for Message Board Harassment

Gretchen Gallen
LOS ANGELES, Calif. – A corporate attorney who was miffed when fellow Yahoo message board users made what he alleges were "defamatory attacks" has filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Yahoo Inc. challenging the web portal's business practices.

Attorney Stephen Galton, of the business litigation firm Galton & Helm, has filed a class-action suit alleging that Yahoo "unfairly protected people who posted negative messages on its bulletin boards and falsely advertised that it prevents such abusive messages."

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo runs many message boards where users can post messages concerning certain company activities, hobbies, interest, etc.

Under Yahoo's Terms of Service, users are asked to agree not to post any messages that are "unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, tortious, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, libelous, invasive of another's privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable."

However, when message postings fail to adhere to Yahoo's standards, the company provides no redress to persons who are the targets of such abuse, and Yahoo rarely terminates the privileges of abusive users, even after receiving notice of such abuse, Galton's lawsuit contends.

Additionally, it is Yahoo's policy not to disclose the identities of users who have posted anonymous abusive messages, except in response to a subpoena.

Galton first logged on to the Yahoo message boards in December 2003 to address a user who had written defamatory remarks about the chief executive officer of one of his clients. The message was posted by a user named "mumioler."

Court papers obtained by XBiz claim that the CEO had been called "vicious, personal, irresponsible and defamatory" names by mumioler and other posters.

Galton consequently became the subject of a personal attack himself in which he was called a "sleazy parasite, grossly overpaid poster, a shyster, sleazeball, whoredog, vermin, fatboy, and biased ignorant fool," to name just a few of the postings.

Galton contacted Yahoo for information on the identities of the people he alleges had defamed him. But in keeping with Yahoo's message board policy, Galton was forced to file a defamation lawsuit in April against a "John Doe" defendant, namely mumioler, in order to obtain information from Yahoo on his personal identity and contact information.

"Our big issue is that Yahoo can protect abusive posters and allow such abusive content," David Weinman, an attorney for Galton & Helm, told XBiz. "They are sheltering people over the interests of the people who are getting defamed. Free speech is fine, but you can't defame someone and get away with it."

Weinman added that while there are many instances out there in cyberspace that are similar to Galton's case, many individuals who claim they have been defamed on message boards do not have the resources to defend themselves in lawsuits against Internet service providers, which typically require enormous resources and time.

Galton filed a class-action lawsuit on Wednesday in Los Angeles challenging Yahoo's business policy. Galton is seeking restitution and the disgorgement of profits Yahoo has earned through its general practices as they pertain to message boards, which have been a fairly substantial source of advertising revenue for the web portal.

"What we're really seeking is for Yahoo to do the right thing and change its practices," Weinman told XBiz.

According to Weinman, a judge will determine within the coming months whether the lawsuit can be classified as a class action, after which time the lawsuit is open to anyone in the state of California who believes they have been subjected to defamatory remarks by other users on Yahoo message boards over the past four years and who tried to defend themselves by identifying the user who posted the remarks, but were denied help from Yahoo.

If the court denies the class-action status, Weinman added, then the lawsuit will continue on as an individual case.

"Yahoo should fulfill its promise to the public that it does not allow abusive content," Weinman said. "But they simply haven't."

Representatives for Yahoo did not return calls at the time of this posting.