High Court grants orders to identify firm’s anonymous online accusers

29 Nov 2012

The High Court has granted court orders to an Irish-based oil exploration company allowing it to seek the identity of people who allegedly posted defamatory material on internet message boards, including Boards.ie, causing the oil company to lose stg£132m of market value.

US Oil Gas plc (USOP) claimed that untrue defamatory postings on a number of online boards between 8 November and 22 November about its drilling project in Nevada led to its price fall and damaged the company’s reputation.

After being granted the court orders, USOP intends to take legal action against those who posted the material.

The company has been in the oil and gas sector for more than six years and apparently had a good reputation as a well-run business.

In an affidavit, the chief executive of USOP Brian McDonnell said statements made against the company alleging the company was engaged in fraudulent activities and serious wrongdoings had “a catastrophic effect” on its market value.

The person or individuals behind the postings called McDonnell a ‘liar’ in public and alleged he was running a ‘ponzi scheme’.

In the affidavit, McDonnell said it would be difficult for USOP to generate further capital investment because of the false allegations that are now in the public domain.

He said he had no choice but to pursue the authors of the defamatory comments through the courts.

Before the posts were made on iii.co.uk, lse.co.uk and on Boards.ie, the market capitalisation of USOP was stg£173m when the share price was stg£4.15.

Now the market capitalisation stands at stg£41.6m and the share price has dropped to stg£1.

Decision lifts a veil on online anonymity

The decision by High Court Judge Mr Justice Roderick Murphy to allow USOP to gain access to the identities of the person or people who posted the commentary on the message boards should send a shiver down the spines of people who hide behind avatars on message boards and post defamatory material about others.

The development is also significant in light of online bullying and the recent suicides of young schoolgirls in Ireland in terms of the ability of their online persecutors to hide behind anonymous profiles on social networking sites.

This is not to mention the Lord McAlpine saga in the UK, where misidentification in a BBC Newsnight investigation led to the defamation of an innocent man on Twitter and other social networking sites.

“The veil of anonymity has been lifted by the courts and whatever superficial anonymity thought to be afforded to these individuals is not there,” Jon Legorburu, head of litigation at Dublin law firm ByrneWallace, which pursued the action on USOP’s behalf, told Siliconrepublic.com

“This is not a restraint on freedom of speech, but it lifts a curtain and should act as a deterrent.”

Legorburu added: “We now have a willingness on the part of the Irish legal system to step up and protect society in circumstances where the law itself needs to evolve.

“The only thing now that needs to happen is legislation that will focus the minds of everyone in civil society on this.

“You cannot have a coherent civil community in circumstances where people are allowed to anonymously damage people’s good names.

“To end up having false comments displayed to thousands of people can damage businesses and people’s lives,” Legorburu warned.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years