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”.

Federal court applies Seescandy.com test to unmask anonymous defendants in copyright and privacy case

Liberty Media Holdings, LLC. v. Does 1-59, 2011 WL 292128 (S.D. Cal., January 25, 2011)

Plaintiff porn company sued 59 anonymous defendants it knew only by IP address for violation of the Stored Communications Act (SCA), the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and for copyright infringement. Since plaintiff did not know who the defendants were, it had to jump through a few hoops to find out their names.

The court rewarded such hoop-jumping by ordering that the defendants’ identities be turned over.

Hoop #1 – The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984

A subpoena to the defendants’ internet service providers would reveal the needed information. But these ISPs, being governed by the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, could not turn over their subscribers’ information without a court order. (See 47 USC 515(c)(2)(B))

Hoop #2 – Discovery prior to the Rule 26(f) conference

What’s more, a plaintiff cannot start conducting discovery (and a subpoena is a discovery tool) until after it has had the initial conference with the defendant (the Rule 26(f) conference). But how can a plaintiff confer with a defendant it does not know? There is a bootstrapping problem here. The court has to step in and issue an order allowing the discovery be had.

Hoop #3 – Balancing injury versus right to anonymous speech

And getting that court order is a bit problematic and nuanced when one is dealing with anonymous defendants. The courts recognize the conflict between a need to provide injured plaintiffs with a forum in which they may seek redress for grievances, and the right of John Doe defendants to use the internet anonymously or pseudonymously when appropriate.

So judges apply a balancing test to weigh these interests. Different courts apply different tests. Some apply a very demanding standard, requiring plaintiffs to present enough facts to withstand a hypothetical motion for summary judgment. Other cases require a lesser burden be carried, looking merely to whether the complaint would survive a motion to dismiss. That’s the standard the court applied in this case.

The Seescandy.com standard

It looked to the 1999 case of Columbia Ins. Co. v. Seescandy.com, 185 F.R.D. 573, 577 (N.D.Cal.1999) which articulated the following test:

  • First, the plaintiff should identify the missing party with sufficient specificity such that the Court can determine that (the) defendant is a real person or entity that could be sued in federal court …
  • Second, the (plaintiff) should identify all previous steps taken to locate the elusive defendant …
  • Third, Plaintiff should establish to the Court’s satisfaction that plaintiff’s suit against (the) defendant could withstand a motion to dismiss … Plaintiff must make some showing that an act giving rise to civil liability actually occurred and that the discovery is aimed at revealing specific identifying features of the person or entity who committed the act.

In this case, the court found that each of these criteria had been met across the board.

It found that plaintiff had identified the defendants as best it could. Plaintiff provided the court with the unique IP addresses assigned to each defendant and the ISP that provided each defendant with internet access. Further, the requested discovery was necessary for plaintiff to determine the names and addresses of each defendant who performed the allegedly illegal and infringing acts.

The only information plaintiff had regarding the defendants was their IP addresses and their ISPs. Therefore, there were no other measures plaintiff could have taken to identify the defendants other than to obtain their identifying information from their ISPs.

And the court found the allegations supporting each of the claims were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

As to the SCA, the complaint alleged that defendants intentionally accessed plaintiff’s web servers, which are facilities where electronic communication services are provided, defendants had no right to access the copyrighted materials on plaintiff’s website, and defendants obtained access to these electronic communications while these communications were in electronic storage.

On the CFAA claim, the complaint alleged that defendants unlawfully and without authorization entered into plaintiff’s computer server, which was used in interstate commerce, where plaintiff’s copyrighted materials were contained, stole plaintiff’s copyrighted materials, valued in excess of $15,000, and as a result of such conduct, caused plaintiff to suffer damage. Based on these facts, 18 USC 1030(g) authorized plaintiff’s civil action.

And as for copyright infringement, plaintiff alleged that it is the owner of the copyrights for certain motion pictures, which were accessed, reproduced, distributed and publicly displayed by defendants. Also, plaintiff alleged that defendants, without authorization, intentionally accessed, reproduced and distributed plaintiff’s copyrighted works onto their local hard drives or other storage devices.

Publishing child sex abuse victim’s name on the web was not a privacy violation

Doe v. Fankhauser, 2010 WL 4702295 (N.D. Ohio, November 30, 2010)

County clerk immune from law suit over posting court document on government website.

Plaintiff Jane Doe was the victim of physical and sexual abuse when she was a minor. In the criminal case against the perpetrator, Doe’s name was redacted, and she and her family were allegedly assured that her name would not be publicly disclosed. But someone in the county clerk’s website scanned some documents from the criminal case that had Doe’s name in them and posted those electronic documents on the county’s website, making them publicly available.

So Doe sued the county clerk for violation of Doe’s constitutional due process rights and for common law invasion of privacy. The clerk moved to dismiss. The court granted the motion.

The court found that the clerk was protected by judicial immunity. Judges and court personnel who perform judicial and quasi-judicial functions are absolutely immune from suits for damages arising out of the performance of official judicial acts. In this case, the court found that the clerk’s actions in permitting the documents to be scanned and posted required a type of judgment closely related to the judicial process and therefore deserving of immunity.

Interestingly, the court held that the clerk was entitled to immunity from suit regardless of how careless she may have been. There was no loss of immunity merely because a mistake was made and the original document, without redaction, was made available to the public. “Where there is immunity, it applies even in the face of allegations of bad faith, malice, or reckless indifference.”

Makes you feel confident that the government is watching out for your privacy, doesn’t it?

Court allows early discovery to reveal identity of anonymous libel defendant

[This is a guest post by attorney Caroline Belich. Caroline is a Chicago native, former Michigan State volleyball player, and recent admitee to the California bar with particular interest in the First Amendment.]

Zoosk Inc. v. Does, 2010 WL 5115670 (N.D. Cal. December 9, 2011)

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California recently issued an order allowing an internet service provider (ISP) to release an anonymous subscriber’s personal account information. Plaintiff Zoosk is an online social dating network. A Doe defendant created a profile and displayed nude pictures on the site, describing herself as an adult entertainer. After plaintiff permanently blocked the account for violating its terms of use policy, someone set up a Twitter account and posted some allegedly defamatory statements about plaintiff.

After filing a complaint alleging libel per se, Plaintiff asked for leave to take limited early discovery from two ISPs (Comcast and Time Warner Cable) to discover the identity of the Doe defendants. Under the Cable Communications Policy Act, a cable operator may disclose personal identifying information of a subscriber pursuant to a court order authorizing the disclosure. And pursuant to FRCP 26(f), a court may authorize early discovery before the Rule 26(f) conference if the plaintiff shows good cause.

Here the District Court granted the motion, finding that plaintiff showed good cause. First, plaintiff identified the potential Doe defendants with sufficient specificity by determining eight email addresses were using the Twitter account. And plaintiff was able to show how it discovered the emails using publicly-available information. Also, plaintiff’s claims were pleaded with enough particularity to withstand a motion to dismiss. Finally, early discovery was likely to lead to discovery of Doe defendants’ identities so process could be served, because both ISPs had personal information for the eight email addresses involved. As a result, the information these defendant-subscribers provided to Comcast and Time Warner for the sole purpose of using their internet services could also be used to identify them in this defamation claim.

Section 230 shields Google from liability for anonymous defamation

Black v. Google Inc., 2010 WL 3746474 (N.D.Cal. September 20, 2010)

Back in August, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed a lawsuit against Google brought by two pro se plaintiffs, holding that the action was barred under the immunity provisions of 47 USC 230. That section says that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Plaintiffs had complained about a comment on Google (probably a review) disparaging their roofing business.

Plaintiffs filed and “objection” to the dismissal, which the court read as a motion to alter or amend under Fed. R. Civ. P. 59. The court denied plaintiffs’ motion.

In their “objection,” plaintiffs claimed — apparently without much support — that Congress did not intend Section 230 to apply in situations involving anonymous speech. The court did not buy this argument.

The court looked to the Ninth Circuit case of Carafano v. Metrosplash as an example of a website operator protected under Section 230 from liability for anonymous content: “To be sure, the website [in Carafano] provided neutral tools, which the anonymous dastard used to publish the libel, but the website did absolutely nothing to encourage the posting of defamatory content.” As in Carafano, Google was a passive conduit and could not be liable for failing to detect and remove the allegedly defamatory content.

Court orders anonymous accused Bittorrent defendants to be identified

West Bay One v. Does 1 – 1,653, — F.Supp.2d. —, 2010 WL 3522265 (D.D.C. September 10, 2010)

Achte/Neunte Boll Kino Beteiligungs v. Does 1 – 4,577, — F.Supp.2d —, 2010 WL 3522256 (D.D.C. September 10, 2010)

In mass copyright infringement cases against alleged traders of copyrighted movies via Bittorrent, unknown defendants had no reasonable expectation of privacy in their subscriber information held by internet service provider.

Several unknown “Doe” defendants who were sued for copyright infringement for trading movies via Bittorrent moved to quash the subpoenas that the plaintiff copyright owners served on the defendants’ internet service providers.

The subpoenas sought subscriber information such as the defendants’ names, addresses and MAC addresses, so that they could be named as defendants in the copyright litigation.

Defendants moved to quash the subpoenas, arguing that their subscriber information was private information that should not be disclosed pursuant to a Rule 45 subpoena. The court denied the motions and ordered the subscriber information produced.

The court held that the defendants did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their subscriber information held by the internet service providers. It cited to a number of cases that supported this holding, each of which had found that a person loses his or her expectation of privacy in information when that information is disclosed to a third party. See Guest v. Leis (6th Cir.), U.S. v. Hambrick (4th Cir.), and U.S. v. Kennedy (D. Kan.).

In footnotes, the court also addressed the potential First Amendment rights that the defendants would have to engage in anonymous file sharing. It quickly dispensed with any notion that such activities were protected in this case, as the pleadings on file set forth a prima facie case of infringement. “[C]ourts have routinely held that a defendant’s First Amendment privacy interests are exceedingly small where the ‘speech’ is the alleged infringement of copyrights.”

New copyright lawsuits go after porn on Bittorrent

Three adult media entertainment producers filed suit yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois alleging copyright infringement against hundreds of anonymous defendants accused of trading videos using Bittorrent. This kind of action resembles the much-criticized mass litigation undertaken by the U.S. Copyright Group against hordes of unknown accused Bittorrent users trading movies like Hurt Locker.

In this case, the subject matter promises to be more provocative. Plaintiff Millennium TGA is known for producing content in the “transsexual adult entertainment niche.” Plaintiff Lightspeed Media Corporation is alleging infringement of content including collections relating to its Jordan Capri and Tawnee Stone websites. Plaintiff Hard Drive Productions produces the Amateur Allure website.

Here are the complaints:

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