Paul has often posted on (and is one of the leading experts on) protecting consumers' anonymity in speaking online. (A good example is the Hadeed case, which you can read more about here.)
But cyberspace offers opportunities for companies to hide also, and it can be a barrier to holding them accountable for wrongdoing. For instance, we've posted about KlearGear, an online retailer that demanded that a Utah couple who posted an unflattering online review pay KlearGear $3500 as a penalty for violating a "non-disparagement clause"; when the couple, John and Jen Palmer, refused to pay, KlearGear reported the debt to the credit agencies with serious and ongoing consequences for the Palmers and their young son. The Palmers have sued KlearGear for damages. (Disclosure: Public Citizen represents the Palmers.) It may sound to many of you like the Palmers have a good case (we certainly think they do).
But first they have to find the company, and that is harder than it sounds.
In November, the company's website listed an address in Grandville, Michigan, on Sanford Avenue. That's where Public Citizen sent a demand letter to KlearGear. No response. So we filed suit on the couple's behalf in December. In the intervening three weeks, the company's website reflected that it had moved to a different address in Grandville, on Wilson Avenue. (WOOD-TV Grand Rapids filed this report after trying -- and failing -- to track KlearGear down.) A mailing to KlearGear at the Wilson Avenue address was returned undelivered because the address lacked a suite number; KlearGear's website did not list a suite number. Also the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs doesn't contain a listing for the company, suggesting they aren't registered to do business in the state. Multiple calls to the numbers on KlearGear's website yielded no response, and at least one of the numbers was disconnected. I called another tenant at Wilson Avenue to find out what was going on and if he'd heard of KlearGear. He hadn't. There's a post office, too, at that address, so I called it. Never heard of KlearGear. I ultimately reached the landlord just last week, on January 3. He hadn't head of KlearGear either, and expressed concern that there might be something fishy going on. Then on January 6 (because the landlord had been trying to get to the bottom of things? who knows?), KlearGear's address on its website changed yet again -- back to Sanford Avenue. Meanwhile, if you click "print" on one of the pages where KlearGear lists its address, on the print screen next to the company's logo there appears a third address -- this one in San Antonio, Texas. (A call to the Texas Secretary of State's office revealed that KlearGear is not listed as licensed to do business there either.)
As another example, consider Paul's post last week about Accessories Store (the post's title says it all: "Accessories Store: A Nondisparagement Clause Even Worse than Kleargear"). Paul recounts (emphasis mine):
After Murakami came to Public Citizen for help, we concluded that the non-disparagement clause was so excessive as to be unenforceable, just as in the Kleargear case. We contacted the company (which does not appear to have any public street address – even its domain names have been registered anonymously) to let it know that she was represented by pro bono counsel. Accessories Store never responded, but also stopped threatening to take action against Murakami.
The fact that we seem to have gotten Accessories Store to back off is great, but what if they had done more than threaten Karen, and she had wanted to sue to enforce her rights? Where would she have found them to sue them?
None of this is to cast doubt on the value of online anonymity generally -- as Paul's cases demonstrate in the context of consumer speech, anonymity can be invaluable in fostering discourse that might otherwise be silenced by community pressure. (A particularly good example is the Thomas Cooley case, discussed here.) Nor am I suggesting that the internet itself needs more regulation. What might need more regulation is corporations that do business online and use their exclusive presence in that medium to try to avoid accountability for abusive practices. The effort involved in finding and serving online companies drives up the expense of suing them and could even deter attorneys from taking on suits against them at all. Congress should consider a requirement that companies doing business online maintain a physical address for service, much as the DMCA does for companies hosting comments.