Like a lot of people, the anonymous poster Blueskiesforme1 likes to share opinions about Donald Trump. Sometimes he or she weighs in on sports, particularly the New York Mets.
But in recent months, Blueskies’ favorite Yahoo topic has been a little-known holding company with executive offices in St. Louis Park called Air T Inc.
Dozens of postings have blasted the company’s performance, its investment strategy and the management skills of Chief Executive Nick Swenson.
The criticism comes in the wake of a rocky year for Air T, which lost $3.2 million on revenue of $148 million in 2017. The company, which receives about half its revenue by providing airplanes and other services to FedEx, returned to profitability this year. Its stock price traded at $26.85 on Friday, near a three-year high.
Now Swenson and his company have set their sights on their most persistent public critic. In a lawsuit filed earlier this month in Hennepin County District Court, Air T is seeking court approval to obtain information from Yahoo and various internet providers that would allow the company to unmask Blueskies and learn his or her true identity.
The company suspects the comments are coming from a current or former employee because some of the postings suggest the person has “access to confidential information,” Air T said in its lawsuit. If that’s true, the person would be violating a nondisparagement clause in his or her employment contract, the company said.
“It’s no fun being trolled,” Swenson said in a written response to the Star Tribune’s questions. Yahoo officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Going to court to expose critics is a tactic that has become increasingly popular in corporate America, which is routinely exposed to withering criticism from anonymous authors on bulletin boards managed by Yahoo and other online vendors.
While the courts have protected the identities of some commenters on free-speech grounds, many critics have been outed when judges agreed that their First Amendment rights were trumped by the harm they were doing to their targets.
“Social media is not a free-for-all,” said University of Missouri Law School Dean Lyrissa Lidsky, who has been studying internet privacy issues since 1999. “You need to be careful that you are not defaming others. Even if you are just expressing your opinion, it doesn’t guarantee you won’t get sued — which is a really frightening thought for a lot of people of modest means who use social media to communicate.”
Legal experts said no one has compiled data on the number of such lawsuits, but online providers have produced their own “transparency” reports that show a spike in the number of legal actions aimed at revealing the identities of account holders.
Though companies often try to block such maneuvers, they usually wind up turning over the names of account holders and other identifying information, such as phone numbers and e-mail addresses, the reports show.
In 2017, for instance, Google said 68,456 accounts were targeted as part of government investigations and civil actions in the U.S., a threefold increase from 2011. Google said it provided requested information in about 80 percent of the cases after the issuance of a court order, subpoena or search warrant.
Twitter said it received requests covering more than 12,000 U.S. account holders last year, providing at least some information in three-quarters of those cases. Oath, the corporate parent of Yahoo and other online brands such as AOL and HuffPost, was one of the most cooperative companies, providing account information in response to all but 222 of 5,266 U.S. requests involving known users in the first half of 2017.
In Minnesota, other companies have had mixed results with such cases. In 2007, the Mosaic Co. obtained a court order to identify an online critic after the company provided evidence that the messages included inside information, such as estimates on the loss of production after an equipment failure at one of its mines.
In 2017, a federal judge in Minnesota refused a request from East Coast Test Prep to help identify several online critics, saying the company “failed to make a concrete showing that these opinions have cast it in a negative light or lowered its reputation.”
Legal experts said judges set a high bar for identifying online commenters because the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that anonymous speech is constitutionally protected. But that right is not unlimited, and companies are typically granted permission to identify their critics if they can prove the comments are defamatory or violate some other law.
“Sometimes these lawsuits are a public relations move,” Lidsky said. “If a company feels like it is being hammered on the internet, it will bring a lawsuit to silence critics and send a message that what the critic’s saying is not true. So a lot of companies bring these cases without even intending to see them through to the end.”
In his statement, Swenson said he is not trying to shut down legitimate criticism of his company.
“I am 100 percent for free speech because it is the best alternative to worse types of conflict,” he said. “So we are not trying to squelch a person’s right to state their opinions. Rather, we have resorted to the courts because Yahoo appears unwilling to help us rule out the possibility that the troll is violating agreements with the company. And as a public company we generally cannot speak out with alternative views when someone posts on Yahoo.”