Nighthawk energy said yesterday it was considering taking legal action against people who discussed the company on online message boards, after discovering the real identities of those it alleged had defamed the company.
The small-cap oil and gas exploration outfit, which has assets in the US, said it had uncovered the identities of people using pseudonyms to attack the company on internet bulletin boards, including www.iii.co.uk and ADVFN.com, both of which are popular with investors.
The move follows a High Court ruling in June that messages posted on internet message boards could be libellous. The court unmasked several people who repeatedly used chat rooms to attack Nighthawk.
"The company took steps to identify the posters who try to escape liability for their defamatory postings by hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, using anonymous email, social networking or bulletin board accounts to disseminate those postings," a corporate spokesman said.
"In some cases the names and other details used to register these accounts are fictitious and posters also can try to cover their tracks using numerous pseudonyms, but they can be traced through their IP addresses."
Another Aim-listed company, Nostra Terra Oil and Gas, also said it was considering action after claims were made about its management team in bulletin board postings.
Nighthawk and Nostra Terra both said that they did not wish to stifle online debate between private investors.
"This isn't about muzzling investors that want to have a go at the company, or who want to complain that they've lost money, or boast that they've made money," said Nighthawk's managing director, David Bramhill. "That's free speech and they're welcome to it. This is about calculated lies."
Nostra Terra said: "The majority of people posting comments on message boards do so, perfectly legitimately, using pseudonyms." Its chief executive, Matt Lofgran, said he and the company had been the target of postings since last December.
The Financial Services Authority said bulletin boards were governed by market abuse rules, but that the watchdog relied on companies to draw itsattention to potential attempts at manipulating share prices through false rumours.
Firms the size of Nighthawk rarely make announcements to the Stock Exchange beyond regulatory filings and are only sporadically covered by the press and other media. As a result, thousands of retail investors use internet chat rooms to discuss rumours about companies, in the same way that fans of football teams discuss potential transfers for their clubs.
On a quiet day in the markets yesterday, several traders said they were surprised by Nighthawk's stance. "Everyone gets slated on message boards," said one. "Why are [Nighthawk] so sensitive about it?"
Nighthawk's shares have lost nearly a third of their value in the past 12 months, while Nostra has seen its shares jump by about 70 per cent.
ADVFN said it received between 10,000 to 12,000 postings a day and had received several court orders already this year requiring it to reveal users' identities. The website said its policy was not to police bulletin boards and it did not reveal user identities unless served with a court order.
Any action by Nighthawk or Nostra could lead to a flood of litigation from companies that feel that they have been unfairly criticised in chat rooms. But it is unclear whether yesterday's shot across the bows of hitherto anonymous internet users will actually lead to legal action, or if it will just curtail debate.Reuse content