Yahoo Fingered for Unfair Business Practices

Gretchen Gallen
LOS ANGELES, Calif. – A lawsuit filed against web portal Yahoo Inc. for unfair business practices inched forward this week following a status hearing in L.A. Superior Court, attorney David Weinman told XBiz.

The case, which alleges that Yahoo unfairly protected people who posted negative messages on its bulletin boards and falsely advertised that it prevents such abusive messages, was filed by Stephen Galton after he was subjected to what he claims were defamatory attacks by several anonymous message board users.

The charges against Yahoo stem from a single incident in December 2003 when Galton logged on to the Yahoo message boards to address a user who had written nasty remarks about the chief executive officer of one of his clients. It was at that point that Galton himself became the subject of the alleged defamatory remarks.

Remarks against Galton included comments that he was a "sleazy parasite, a grossly overpaid poser, a shyster, sleaze ball, whoredog, vermin, fat boy, and a 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, he was denied any identifying information unless a subpoena was issued.

Galton, of the business litigation firm Galton & Helm, and his partner Weinman filed a proposed class-action suit in August on behalf of all citizens of California who have faced similar situations on Yahoo message boards and who have asked Yahoo to take action, only to find that the web portal refused to stop the behavior or divulge the identities of the alleged defamers.

At the Oct. 15 hearing, L.A. Superior Court deemed Galton vs. Yahoo a "complex case," which means that it has been relegated to a group of judges who typically devote themselves to more intricate, in-depth cases. Judge Wendell Mortimer has so far been assigned to the case, although it is not yet certain if he will be the trial judge once a date is set, which Weinman said could be months if not years down the road.

Weinman suspects that Yahoo will try to dismiss the case long before the trial date.

"The reason we decided to file as a class-action lawsuit is because we feel there are a lot of people in similar situations," Weinman told XBiz. "We can help other people because we're doing a lot of the work anyway, and typically, class action lawsuits get more attention from large corporations like Yahoo than individual cases."

Weinman added that Galton & Helm has so far received hundreds of inquiries from perspective plaintiffs who claim to have had similar experiences on Yahoo message boards.

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

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo runs many message boards where users can post messages regarding 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, tortuous, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, libelous, invasive of another's privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable."

However, Galton's lawsuit contends, 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.

"Our big issue is that Yahoo can protect abusive posters and allow such abusive content," Weinman said. "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."

Galton has also filed a separate defamation lawsuit against one of the message board posters who he was eventually able to track down. The man has been identified as an anesthesiologist living in North Carolina.

Galton claims that the postings by the man, who used the handle "mumioler," were "vicious, personal, irresponsible and defamatory," and he is seeking personal damages.

The other message posters involved in the case have still not been identified.

Yahoo was not available for comment.