In re Does, — S.W.3d —, 2011 WL 1447544 (Texas, April 15, 2011)
The issue of anonymity is a hot topic in internet law. The question of whether an internet user known only by an IP address or username or website name should be identified arises fairly often in the early stages of internet defamation and certain copyright infringement cases. For example, the issue is a big one in the numerous copyright cases that have been brought recently against BitTorrent users who get subpoenas after being accused of trading copyrighted works online.
The supreme court of Texas has issued an opinion that protects the anonymity of a couple of bloggers who were accused of defamation, copyright infringement and invasion of privacy by another blogger. The court ordered that a subpoena served on Google (who hosted the Blogger accounts in question) be quashed.
Texas rules of procedure (Rule 202) allow a petitioner to take depositions before a lawsuit is filed in order to investigate a potential claim. The petitioner in this case filed such an action, and Google agreed to turn over the information about the anonymous Blogger users.
But the anonymous bloggers objected, and moved to quash the deposition subpoena, arguing that the findings required for the discovery to be taken had not been made.
The trial court was required to find that:
(1) allowing the petitioner to take the requested depositions may prevent a failure or delay of justice in an anticipated suit; or
(2) the likely benefit of allowing the petitioner to take the requested deposition to investigate a potential claim outweighs the burden or expense of the procedure.
Neither of these findings were made. Petitioner had tried to argue that the findings were not necessary because he had gotten the agreement of Google to turn over the information.
But the court saw how that missed the point. It held that without the required findings, the discovery could not be taken in the face of objections brought by other interested parties (the parties whose identities were at risk of being revealed).
While many courts have evaluated this kind of question using a first amendment analysis (i.e., is the John Doe’s interest in speaking anonymously outweighed by the plaintiff’s right to seek redress), the court in this case looked to more general concerns of avoiding litigation abuse. Citing to a law review article by Professor Hoffman, the court observed that there is “cause for concern about insufficient judicial attention to petitions to take presuit discovery” and that “judges should maintain an active oversight role to ensure that [such discovery is] not misused”.