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July 8, 2014, 11:26 a.m.
Audience & Social
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   July 8, 2014

Seeking Alpha is a site for people to write up and share their investing ideas — “a platform for investment research, with broad coverage of stocks, asset classes, ETFs and investment strategy.” Some of its contributors use pseudonyms, and earlier this year, someone using the nom de investissement of “Pump Terminator” wrote a piece arguing that a company named NanoViricides was wildly overvalued and using sketchy business practices.

seeking-alphaNanoViricides went to court, demanding that Seeking Alpha turn over the real identity of Pump Terminator so that it could pursue a libel claim against him or her. Seeking Alpha fought it, and now, in what the site is calling a victory for free speech, the New York Supreme Court has denied NanoViricides’ demand. (You can read the court’s opinion here.)

Of interest: The very nature of open crowdsourced platforms — the ruling lumps them together under the rubric of “message boards,” though that seems imprecise in 2014 — makes it harder to pursue the sort of claim NanoViricides was trying to make. Quoting an earlier ruling (emphasis mine):

[i]n determining whether a plaintiff’s complaint [or pre-action petition] includes a published ‘false and defamatory statement concerning another,’ commentators have argued that the defamatory import of the communication must be viewed in light of the fact that bulletin boards and chat rooms ‘are often the repository of a wide range of casual, emotive, and imprecise speech,’ and that the online ‘recipients of [offensive] statements do not necessarily attribute the same level of credence to the statements [that] they would accord to statements made in other contexts.’

There’s also a freedom-of-expression angle:

Finally, this court finds its holding in line with the First Department’s urging in Sandals that courts should protect against “the use of subpoenas by corporations and plaintiffs with business interests to enlist the help of ISPs via court orders to silence their online critics, which threatens to stifle the free exchange of ideas. Sandals, 86 A.D.3d at 45. Clearly the article herein at issue does not cast petitioner in a positive light and the court can sympathize with the filing of the instant petition. However, it is paramount in an open and free society that we protect the anonymity of those whose “publication is prompted by the desire to question, challenge and criticize the practices of those in power without incurring adverse consequences.”

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (broadly speaking) protects people who run websites from being liable for the actions of their users/commenters. But this ruling goes beyond that, to merely revealing the identity of those users.

It’s hard to be sure about cause and effect, but NanoViricides’ stock spent early February trading between $4.42 and $4.65 a share. On February 11, the date the Seeking Alpha article was published, it dropped to $3.36, a 23 percent drop from the day before, on trading volume 22 times higher than the day before.

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