Category Archives: Anonymity

Does the constitution protect anonymity?

Yes, the constitution protects one’s right to speak anonymously, but only to a certain extent. The question of one’s First Amendment right to speak anonymously comes up pretty often in situations where a plaintiff seeks to unmask the identity of someone who is alleged to have committed an illegal act against the plaintiff online. Most often it is a plaintiff seeking to unmask an online critic in a defamation lawsuit.

internet anonymity

In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court held in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission that a state statute prohibiting the distribution of anonymous campaign literature was unconstitutional. The court said that “an author’s decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.” 514 U.S., at 342.

One would be hard pressed to overstate the importance of anonymous speech. Three and a half decades before the McIntyre decision, the Supreme Court observed that “[p]ersecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all.” Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60, 64 (1960). And “[t]he loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.” Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976).

But free speech protection has its limits. A person does not have a First Amendment right to defame another. So when one party seeks to “de-anonymize” another using the court system, the judge must strike a balance between the plaintiff’s right to seek redress and the defendant’s interest (if any) in remaining anonymous.

Courts have come up with a variety of balancing tests. Though different courts have come up with different ways of conducting the analysis, the test always involves looking at the strength of the facts the plaintiff puts in his or her initial filing. The more likely it appears there is real defamation, for example, the less likely the anonymous speech will be protected. If the strength of those allegations gets beyond a certain tipping point, the risk of an anonymous free speech violation becomes outweighed by the need for the plaintiff to get relief for the unprotected, unlawful speech.

Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney, representing businesses and individuals in a variety of situations, including matters dealing with online anonymity and anonymous speech.

Photo credit: petter palinder under this license.

Court tosses copyright claims against 244 accused BitTorrent infringers

Digital Sins, Inc. v. John Does 1–245, 2012 WL 1744838 (S.D.N.Y. May 15, 2012)

Plaintiff Digital Sins filed a copyright lawsuit against 245 anonymous BitTorrent users. The court dismissed the case against all but one of the unknown John Does, finding that the defendants had been improperly joined in one lawsuit. The judge observed that “there is a right way and a wrong way to litigate [copyright infringement claims], and so far this way strikes me as the wrong way.”

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 20(a)(2) provides that defendants can be joined into one case if, for example, the plaintiff’s right to relief arises out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences, or if there is any question of law or fact common to all defendants.

In this case, the court found that those requirements had not been met. Plaintiff’s allegations that the defendants merely commited the same type of violation in the same way, did not satisfy the test for permissive joinder under Rule 20. There was no basis, according to the court, to conclude that any of the defendants was acting other than independently when he or she chose to access the BitTorrent protocol.

The court went on to find that having all the defendants joined in one action would not give rise to any valid judicial economy. Any such economy from litigating all the cases in a single action would only benefit plaintiff, by not having to pay separate filing fees to sue each defendant. Moreover, trying 245 separate cases in which each of 245 different defendants would assert his own separate defenses under a single umbrella would be unmanageable.

Photo credit: nshontz

Ron Paul not allowed to find out who posted mean video about Jon Huntsman on YouTube

Ron Paul 2012 Presidential Campaign Committee, Inc. v. Does, 12-00240 (N.D. Cal. January 25, 2012)

(Hat tip to Venkat for posting a link to this decision.)

Ron Paul’s campaign — Ron Paul 2012 Presidential Campaign Committee, Inc. — sued some John Doe defendants in federal court over an offensive video attacking former (but then current) opponent Jon Huntsman. The video demonstrated a gross insensitivity toward Chinese culture, and was posted to YouTube and promoted on Twitter by a user calling himself NHLiberty4Paul.

Since the campaign did not know the true identity of the John Doe defendants, it asked the court for leave to take “expedited discovery” so that it could serve subpoenas on YouTube and Twitter. (The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not allow early discovery like this unless the court specifically permits it.)

The court denied the campaign’s motion seeking early discovery. It held that the campaign failed to show the required “good cause” for expedited discovery set forth in the case of Columbia Ins. Co. v. Seescandy.com, 185 F.R.D. 573, 577 (N.D.Cal.1999).

Under the Seescandy.com standard, in determining whether there is good cause to allow expedited discovery to identify anonymous internet users named as Doe defendants, courts consider whether:

  • (1) the plaintiff can identify the missing party with sufficient specificity such that the court can determine that defendant is a real person or entity who could be sued in federal court;
  • (2) the plaintiff has identified all previous steps taken to locate the elusive defendant;
  • (3) the plaintiff’s suit against defendant could withstand a motion to dismiss; and
  • (4) the plaintiff has demonstrated that there is a reasonable likelihood of being able to identify the defendant through discovery such that service of process would be possible.

The court found that the campaign failed to address these required issues. One is left to wonder whether there is enough of Paul’s campaign left to make it worthwhile to try again.

No deposition of account holder allowed until he is named as defendant in BitTorrent copyright case

Hard Drive Productions, Inc. v. Doe, 2012 WL 90412 (E.D. Cal. July 11, 2012)

In a mass copyright infringement suit, plaintiff served a subpoena on an internet service provider and got the identifying information for the account holder suspected of trading a copy of a movie via BitTorrent. The account holder was uncooperative with plaintiff’s offers to settle, and denied downloading the file.

Instead of simply naming the identified account holder as a defendant in the case and proceeding with ordinary discovery, plaintiff asked the court for leave to take “expedited discovery,” namely, to depose the account holder to learn about:

  • the account holder’s involvement with the alleged distribution
  • his computers and network setup
  • his technical savvy
  • other users who may have had access to the computers or network

The court denied plaintiff’s request for leave to engage in the expedited discovery. It found that unlike other copyright cases in which anonymous infringers were identified, the efforts in this case “went far beyond seeking to identify a Doe defendant.” Instead, the court observed, it would be “a full-on deposition during which [the account holder] who plaintiff admits is likely not represented by counsel, may unwarily incriminate himself on the record before he has even been named as a defendant and served with process.”

Video: my appearance on the news talking about isanyoneup.com

Last night I appeared in a piece that aired on the 9 o’clock news here in Chicago, talking about the legal issues surrounding isanyoneup.com. (That site is definitely NSFW and I’m not linking to it because it doesn’t deserve the page rank help.) The site presents some interesting legal questions, like whether and to what extent it is shielded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for the harm that arises from the content it publishes (I don’t think it is shielded completely). The site also engages in some pretty blatant copyright infringement, and does not enjoy safe harbor protection under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Here’s the video:

District judge stays magistrate’s order requiring identification of anonymous defendants

This is a post by Jonathan Rogers. Jon is a licensed attorney in California, with a focus on technology and entertainment law. You can reach him by email at jon@jonarogers.com or follow him on Twitter at @jonarogers.

Faconnable USA Corp. v. Doe, Slip Copy, 2011 WL 2173736 (D.Colo., Jun 2, 2011)

Faconnable issued a subpoena duces tecum to Skybeam, an Internet Service Provider, requesting identifying information about the users associated with two different IP addresses. A magistrate judge denied Skybeam’s motion for protective order, and required Skybeam to provide the requested information. Skybeam sought review of the denial of the protective order with the district court, asking for a stay of the magistrate’s order requiring the disclosure of the information. The court granted the motion to stay.

The court looked at four factors to determine whether it was appropriate to issue a stay against providing the information.

  • the likelihood of success on appeal (to the district judge)
  • the threat of irreparable harm if the stay or injunction is not granted
  • the absence of harm to opposing parties if the stay or injunction is granted
  • any risk of harm to the public interest

The court noted that if the last three factors are in a moving party’s favor, the first factor of likelihood of success is given less importance.

The court determined that if the stay were denied, the ISP would have to disclose the Does’ identities, which could impact their First Amendment interests to speak anonymously. However, if the stay were allowed, the ISP could preserve the information for production later, the only harm being a possible delay for Faconnable’s suit.

The court found that, on balance, the risk of losing First Amendment freedoms was a greater harm than delayed litigation.

Court protects identity of anonymous email sender

Sandals Resorts Intern. Ltd. v. Google, Inc., — N.Y.S.2d —, 2011 WL 1885939, (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept., May 19, 2011)

Some unknown person sent an email to a number of undisclosed recipients containing information that was critical of the hiring and other business practices of the Caribbean resort Sandals. Irritated by this communication, Sandals filed an action in New York state court seeking a subpoena to compel Google to identify the owner of the offending Gmail account.

The trial court denied the petition seeking discovery. Sandals sought review with the appellate court. On appeal, the court affirmed the denial of the petition for discovery.

Under New York law, a person or entity can learn the identity of an unknown possible defendant only when it demonstrates that it has “a meritorious cause of action and that the information sought is material and necessary to the actionable wrong.” In this case, the court held that the petition failed to demonstrate that Sandals had a meritorious cause of action.

The court found that nothing in the petition identified specific assertions of fact as false. It also found that the lower court did not err in reasoning that the failure to allege the nature of the injuries caused by the statements in the email were fatal to the petition.

It went on to find that even if the petition had sufficiently alleged the email injured Sandals’ business reputation or damaged its credit standing, it would still deny the application for disclosure of the account holder’s identification on the ground that the subject email was constitutionally protected opinion.

In discussing this portion of its decision, the court said some interesting things about the nature of internet communications, apparently allowing a certain characterization of online speech to affect its rationale:

The culture of Internet communications, as distinct from that of print media such a newspapers and magazines, has been characterized as encouraging a “freewheeling, anything-goes writing style.” [...] [T]he e-mail at issue here . . . bears some similarity to the type of handbills and pamphlets whose anonymity is protected when their publication is prompted by the desire to question, challenge and criticize the practices of those in power without incurring adverse consequences such as economic or official retaliation. [...] Indeed, the anonymity of the e-mail makes it more likely that a reasonable reader would view its assertions with some skepticism and tend to treat its contents as opinion rather than as fact.

The court made clear that these observations were “in no way intended to immunize e-mails the focus and purpose of which are to disseminate injurious falsehoods about their subjects.” The real cause for concern, and the thing to protect against, in the court’s view, was “the use of subpoenas by corporations and plaintiffs with business interests to enlist the help of ISPs via court orders to silence their online critics, which threatens to stifle the free exchange of ideas.”

More subpoenas on the way to identify John Doe BitTorrent users in copyright cases

First Time Videos v. Does 1-37, 2011 WL 1431619 (N.D. California, April 14, 2011)

Hard Drive Productions v. Does 1-118, 2011 WL 1431612 (N.D. California, April 14, 2011)

There have been a couple of new cases filed in federal court in California alleging that unknown BitTorrent users committed copyright infringement and engaged in civil conspiracy by trading porn files online. [Read about some earlier, ongoing cases of this type here and here]. The court has issued orders that move the process of uncovering the identities of the John Doe defendant BitTorrent users.

Generally a plaintiff cannot start the discovery process in a case until it has had a “Rule 26(f)” conference with the defendant. But when the defendants are anonymous (as they are in these BitTorrent cases — they’re known only by IP address), the plaintiff has a bit of a problem. It needs discovery to find out the names of the defendants, but it cannot take discovery before the Rule 26(f) conference. [More on this]

So in cases like this, a plaintiff will ask the court to allow the early discovery to be had. Courts grant those motions allowing early discovery when good cause has been shown.

In this case, the court allowed the discovery because the following four criteria had been met:

(1) The plaintiffs had identified the Doe defendants with sufficient specificity that the court could determine that the defendants are real people who can be sued in federal court. On this point, the court credited the list of IP addresses associated with each of the unknown defendants.

(2) The plaintiffs recounted the steps taken to locate and identify the defendants. Again, the court looked to the fact that the defendants were known only by IP addresses. The names of the defendants could not be ascertained from the information available.

(3) The plaintiffs demonstrated that the action could withstand a motion to dismiss. In some cases this is a tough hurdle to get over. But in copyright cases the threshold can be met relatively easily — simply alleging ownership of a copyright and unlawful copying satisfies this element.

(4) The plaintiffs proved that the discovery was likely to lead to identifying information that will permit service of process. Getting the subscriber information from the ISPs would allow names to be associated with the IP addresses, for further action to be taken.

(The above 4-factor test is drawn from Columbia Ins. Co. v. seescandy. com, 185 F.R.D. 573, 578–80 (N.D.Cal.1999).)

So ISPs across the country will be getting peppered with more subpoenas, and sending out letters to their John Doe subscribers, giving deadlines to move to quash the subpoenas. More mad scramble to protect identities is on its way.

Texas supreme court says identities of anonymous bloggers should not be disclosed

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”.