Category Archives: Anonymity

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:

Ninth Circuit orders anonymous internet speakers be identified

In re Anonymous Online Speakers, — F.3d —, 2010 WL 2721490 (9th Cir. July 12, 2010)

Quixtar (which used to be Amway) sued Signature Management TEAM (“TEAM”) for tortious interference and other claims, alleging that TEAM engaged in a smear campaign against Quixtar on the internet. In his deposition, TEAM’s online content manager refused to answer questions concerning the identity of the authors of certain statements made against Quixtar online. On Quixtar’s motion, the court ordered that the online content manager answer some of the questions concerning the anonymous speakers.

The anonymous speakers sought mandamus relief from the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the court denied the request. It held that the district court’s decision was not “clearly erroneous as a matter of law.”

The district court had applied the stringent test set out in Doe v. Cahill, which requires, among other things, that the party seeking the identity of an anonymous internet speaker present enough facts to support a hypothetical motion for summary judgment.

The Ninth Circuit looked to the nature of the speech at issue — commercial speech — and held that the Cahill standard was too high. But the application of a too-high standard did not mean that the lower court should be reversed. The outcome would have been the same (i.e., the anonymous speakers would have been ordered unmasked) even if the district court had correctly applied a lower standard appropriate for commercial speech.

This is a significant case on the topic of anonymity because it is only the third federal circuit opinion to consider the question as to when unknown online speakers should be identified. The others are NLRB v. Midland Daily News (6th Cir. 1998) and Lefkoe v. Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, (4th Cir. 2009).

Illinois court sets standard for unmasking anonymous commenters

Maxon v. Ottawa Pub. Co., — N.E.2d —, 2010 WL 2245065 (Ill.App. 3 Dist. June 1, 2010)

The rules of civil procedure in Illinois permit an aggrieved party to file a petition with the court asking for an order requiring unknown potential defendants to be identified. This is called a Rule 224 petition.

A couple from Ottawa, Illinois got their feelings hurt over some anonymous comments left in response to content published by the local newspaper on its website. Wanting to sue for defamation, the couple filed a Rule 224 petition. The newspaper opposed the petition. (For something similar, see Enterline v. Pocono Medical Center.)

The trial court denied the petition, applying the standards articulated in Dendrite v. Doe and Doe v. Cahill, finding that the petitioners had not presented a strong enough case for defamation to justify the unmasking of the anonymous commenters. Those cases require, among other things, that a party seeking to identify an anonymous speaker make efforts to notify the anonymous party, and present enough evidence to establish a prima facie case of defamation (Dendrite) or survive a hypothetical motion for summary judgment (Cahill).

The aggrieved couple sought review with the Appellate Court of Illinois. Reviewing the decision to deny the Rule 224 petition de novo, the court reversed and remanded, ordering the identification of the anonymous speakers to be made.

In reaching its decision, the court rejected the newspaper’s (and amicis’) arguments that the trial court should apply the rigorous standards of Dendrite and Cahill. That’s not to say, however, that the court left anonymous speakers at great risk of having their First Amendment rights trampled upon.

The court held that the mechanics of Rule 224 adequately protect the potential First Amendment rights of anonymous internet speakers. Here’s why, according to the court:

  • The petition must be verified – the threat of the pain of perjury should keep out half-hearted claims.
  • The petition must state the reason discovery is necessary.
  • The discovery is limited only to learning the identity of the potential defendant.
  • Most importantly, before the discovery will be permitted, the court must hold a hearing and determine the petition sufficiently states a cause of action.

In this fourth step, the court is to apply the standard it would apply in a Section 2-615 motion. Such a motion is, essentially, the Illinois version of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. That is no insignificant test, because unlike federal court and other state jurisdictions, Illinois requires fact pleading. That means the petition needs to include a significant amount of specific information to survive the motion to dismiss.

A troubling aspect of the ruling is the omission from the test of a requirement that the party seeking discovery attempt to notify the anonymous target of the inquisition. The appellate court held that a trial court may, in its discretion, impose such a requirement.

But it would be nice to know that the real party whose First Amendment interests are at stake (the anonymous speaker) is guaranteed a fair opportunity to argue from his or her perspective. After all, it’s that party with the real incentive to do so. Let’s hope the trial courts exercise that discretion wisely (and that they know in the first place that they have that discretion).

Photo courtesy Flickr user TheTruthAbout… under this Creative Commons license.

Court scales back Zynga’s attempts to learn about anonymous Mafia Wars infringers

Zynga Game Network Inc. v. Williams, 2010 WL 2077191 (N.D.Cal. May 20, 2010)

Zynga (you know, the creator of Farmville and Mafia Wars) has filed a federal lawsuit against the operators of websites that sell virtual currency and goods for use in Mafia Wars. These websites allegedly give rise to infringement of the Mafia Wars trademark and the sale of these virtual things is in violation of the game’s terms of service.

In federal court, you can’t start the discovery process until the parties have met to discuss certain issues (this is called a Rule 26(f) conference). But there’s an obvious chicken and egg problem in cases like this that have anonymous defendants — how do you confer with a defendant you don’t know? You’re kind of stuck if you can’t take discovery to learn who he is.

Fortunately the court can allow discovery to happen before the Rule 26(f) conference when there is good cause.

So Zynga has argued that there is good cause to allow it to serve subpoenas on Godaddy (the registrant for the MAFIAWARSDIRECT.COM, MWBLACKMARKET.COM, and MWFEXPRESS.COM domain names) and PayPal, who apparently facilitated the purchase of virtual goods.

The court agreed that Zynga should get to serve the subpoenas. But it found that the subpoenas as proposed were too broad. For example, Zynga sought all billing and account records, server logs, website content, contact information, transaction histories and correspondence for the persons or entities that purchased services from the offending sites. The court held that the limited discovery appropriate for Zynga at the early stage would only allow it to get identifying information for the site owners.

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Anonymous accused Bittorrent user moves to quash subpoena using real name

Worldwide Film Entertainment, LLC v. Does 1-749, 2010 WL 2011306 (D.D.C. May 20, 2009)

Some have already commented on their scruples arising from the large economies of scale approach to copyright litigation that’s being undertaken by lawyers with the U.S. Copyright Group to go after Bittorrent movie sharers. See, for example, what Mike Masnick and Eriq Gardner have had to say. And the ISPs aren’t all that happy about the work required to respond to a bunch of subpoenas.

So no one should be surprised if some interesting little internet law vignettes play out along the way. One of those vignettes is wrapping up in federal court in Washington D.C. It has to do with anonymity.

Worldwide Film Entertainment has sued over 700 anonymous Bittorrent users over the 2007 film The Gray Man. As with any case of this sort (like the numerous RIAA lawsuits), the plaintiff doesn’t know the identity of the various defendants when the lawsuit starts. All it has is an IP address for each alleged infringement, so it has to go to the ISP to link that IP address with an individual’s name and physical address. Then the plaintiff will know who to list as a defendant.

But most ISPs won’t turn over subscriber information without a subpoena. So Worldwide Film Entertainment had a subpoena issue to Comcast, the ISP for the IP address associated with one of the alleged infringements. Under the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 (at 47 USC 551), providers like Comcast have to notify their subscriber before turning over the subscriber’s information.

Comcast notified its subscriber in this case, one Mr. Simko, of Worldwide Film Entertainment’s efforts to learn Mr. Simko’s identity.

And here’s the part that makes this little vignette so charming: rather than challenge the plaintiff’s efforts to unmask his identity, Mr. Simko filed a motion to quash the subpoena USING HIS REAL NAME.

The court denied the motion to quash. The basis for denying the motion is kind of an aside (the motion to quash phase was not the right time to challenge venue or knowledge of the infringement).

What’s noteworthy about the case is Mr. Simko’s decision to voluntarily waive his anonymity. Not only did he challenge the subpoena using his own name, he filed as an exhibit the letter he got from Comcast notifying him of the subpoena. Right there, in all caps and as plain as day were Simko’s name and address for all to see.

Photo courtesy Flickr user pourmecoffee.

Troubling decision in matter involving anonymous bloggers

20/20 Financial Consulting, Inc. v. Does 1-5, 2010 WL 1904530 (D.Colo. May 11, 2010) [Opinion embedded below.]

A financial consulting company has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Colorado alleging that certain anonymous web users have posted defamatory statements about the plaintiff on blogs and in message forums. The plaintiff asked the court for an order permitting it to serve subpoenas (apparently to the host and/or the ISP) to uncover the identity of the anonymous bloggers.

With essentially no analysis of the rights of the “John Doe” defendants, the court ordered that the discovery be permitted. This ruling is troubling for a couple of reasons.

There’s an important potential First Amendment issue here over which the court appears to have run roughshod. Each one of us has the constitutional right to speak anonymously. And courts need to be careful not to breach that right when asked to order that anonymous speakers be identified. Responsible courts give this constitutional interest the appropriate treatment by requiring that a certain showing by the plaintiff be made before the unmasking is permitted. See this page for a whole host of court opinions addressing that balancing test.

If the court went through that analysis in this case, it sure does not show up in the opinion.

One big troubling aspect is that the court compared the present situation to one in an earlier copyright infringement case brought by the RIAA. That comparison is not quite valid. In copyright cases, unlike defamation cases, the nature of what the plaintiff pleads is necessarily different — you have to plead a valid copyright registration as half of your prima facie case of copyright infringement. That means you already have the Copyright Office’s stamp of approval, so to speak, that the rights you are asserting are valid. In defamation cases there’s nothing equivalent to a copyright registration certificate. The plaintiff just says the offending statements are defamatory, and that has to be proven later. Simply stated, a claim for copyright infringement, properly pled, will be stronger, and will tend to suggest more clearly, that something actionable has occurred, than will mere assertions of defamation.

Apart from cursorily comparing this case to an unmasking in a copyright infringement case, the court does not mention the potential First Amendment concern of the anonymous defendants, nor does it mention the strength of the plaintiff’s allegations of defamation. The court simply says, “[b]ecause it appears likely that Plaintiff will continue to be thwarted in its attempts to identify Defendants without the benefit of formal discovery mechanisms, the court finds that Plaintiff should be permitted to conduct expedited discovery.” Such a reasoning would suggest anyone sued as a John Doe for defamation should be unmasked pretty much as a matter of course. That’s dangerous.

Anonymous photo courtesy Flickr user Neil Carey under this Creative Commons license.

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