Online chat site IceRed.com supporters have pledged more than HK$50,000 to help fight a lawsuit demanding it reveal the identity of several users.
E-Silkroad Holdings, an online trade show services provider, alleges libellous statements about it were posted in a chat forum by people using pseudonyms.
It has asked the High Court to force IceRed to surrender the real names, addresses, e-mail addresses and Internet Protocol (IP) numbers of whoever sent the messages.
IceRed's owners have refused, and the site's users are collecting money to fund the coming court battle.
On Friday, saying people need to 'protect the fun in their lives', an IceRed user with the alias Badboy issued a call for donations to a legal defence fund, in the process committing HK$2,000 to the cause. 'Over the past few months, this site has given me a lot more entertainment than a few thousand dollars would have gotten me in a bar or restaurant or a massage parlour or whatever,' he said.
'IceRed is a small start-up and taking legal action against it this way is just bullying.'
A target of HK$100,000 was set for the fund. As of yesterday afternoon, HK$51,094 had been pledged.
IceRed, which bills itself as a community for working professionals and alumni, has 8,000 registered members and gets 10,000 unique visitors each day.
With a staff of five and limited funding, the site's owners said they could not afford to hire a lawyer without the donations.
The hearing into the case has been adjourned until Friday because IceRed did not have proper legal representation last week.
Badboy said he was concerned the case might set a precedent for Hong Kong chat sites to reveal the identity of their users.
He said the greatest value of the Internet was as a forum where people could freely express themselves without fear of retaliation.
IceRed co-founder and chief executive Tim Lam would not comment on E-Silkroad's allegations, but agreed freedom of speech was the issue at stake.
'This is a landmark-setting case in Hong Kong and we will pursue this matter to the end to protect the spirit of free speech and the protection of privacy of our Web community,' he said.
It was the first time IceRed had been served with a writ since its launch in March last year. Mr Lam said E-Silkroad could have taken a much simpler route to get some of the information it wanted by asking for a court order, which IceRed would have obeyed.
Instead, by filing a claim of libel, E-Silkroad had created a far more complicated legal situation, he said, adding that IceRed was trying to negotiate a settlement.
E-Silkroad managing director Thomas Ho Kwong-hung said his main complaint was with the people who made the statements, not with IceRed.
'These people are cowards hiding behind assumed names,' he said.
E-Silkroad's lawsuit refers to about a dozen messages between October last year and last month, when E-Silkroad listed on the Growth Enterprise Market.
The company, chairman Michael Choi Koon-ming, Mr Ho, E-Silkroad's listing sponsor, Oriental Patron Asia and Oriental's manager Rabo Leung Chin-sing are all seeking damages.
They also want IceRed to pay their legal costs.
Mr Ho said he was willing to negotiate a settlement with IceRed, but if the site did not co-operate in finding the anonymous users, he 'will bring the wrath of God on them'.
He also criticised people giving money to the defence fund, saying that if they were publicly ridiculed by anonymous critics, they would look at the issue differently.
'The moment the gun was turned towards them they would not be giving money,' Mr Ho said.
Meanwhile, even if E-Silkroad does win, IceRed may not have what the company's lawyers are looking for.
The site allows anonymous postings, and does not have the names or e-mail addresses of the unregistered users who posted the messages cited in the lawsuit.
IceRed logs the IP address of all posters, but that information will not necessarily reveal who was behind the statements.
Ironically, the legal action has resulted in more negative comments being posted on IceRed than were there previously.