Judge: Ashley Madison Customers Can’t Be Anonymous If They Want To Sue Cheating Site

It’s understandable why someone who uses a website to cheat on their significant would want anonymity — mostly, they don’t want to get caught. But the former Ashley Madison customers seeking to sue over the massive data hack last year that exposed personal information for 30 million users or so will have to attach their names to the lawsuit, a federal judge ruled recently.

There are currently 42 plaintiffs seeking to represent a class of users of Ashley Madison, an online dating service that helps people cheat. Those plaintiffs want to sue Avid Life Media, the parent company of Ashley Madison, as John Does, “to reduce the risk of potentially catastrophic personal and professional consequences that could befall them and their families,” according to court papers (h/t New York Times).

They claim that Avid didn’t safeguard their personal and financial information, and peddled a “full delete removal” service for $19 a pop that didn’t actually purge user account information from its database. The plaintiffs are also accusing the company of populating the site with accounts from fake female users to lure customers.

Judge John A. Ross of the United States District Court in the Eastern District of Missouri said in his ruling [PDF] that plaintiffs in cases that involve accusations of rape, child sexual abuse, and other sensitive matters have been allowed to be anonymous. But in other court cases, the mere embarrassment wasn’t enough to outweigh the presumption of openness and public scrutiny in judicial proceedings.

“At the same time, there is a compelling public interest in open court proceedings, particularly in the context of a class-action suit, where a plaintiff seeks to represent a class of consumers who have a personal stake in the case and a heightened interest in knowing who purports to represent their interests in the litigation,” he wrote.

The sexual preferences and habits of the plaintiffs “do not constitute information of the utmost intimacy” that would require withholding their names, the judge wrote.

It’s not like no one has seen their names anyway, the judge added, what with that whole “massive data leak all over the internet” thing.

“Moreover, the personal and financial information plaintiffs seek to protect has already been released on the Internet and made available to the public,” Judge Ross wrote in a ruling dated April 6 that was first reported by Ars Technica earlier this week.

Those who still want to go forward class representatives, who have a fiduciary obligation to represent the entire class of plaintiffs and who “generally receive an incentive award as compensation for work done on behalf of the class,” will have to disclose their identities, the judge wrote.

If they don’t want that role, they could dismiss their complaints and then proceed as class members — if and when a class is certified. Class members won’t have to be identified by name.