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.”

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”.

Court leaves thousands of BitTorrent copyright infringement defendants joined in single action

Call of the Wild Movie v. Does 1 – 1,062 — F.Supp.2d —, 2011 WL 996786 (D.D.C. March 22, 2011)

One of the craziest things about the copyright infringement lawsuits that have been brought against BitTorrent users accused of trading movies over the internet is the vast number of John Doe defendants that are usually lumped into one case. After the plaintiff copyright owners file a complaint for infringement — sometimes against thousands of anonymous defendants — they ask the court for leave to take expedited discovery. Then the movie companies serve subpoenas on the John Does’ internet service providers, asking the ISPs to disclose the identities of their customers associated with particular IP addresses.

Prosecuting a case against thousands of copyright infringement defendants is an enormous task, both for the plaintiffs’ attorneys as well as the ISPs who must respond to the subpoenas. Having so many defendants risks making the case unmanageable. So one may question whether it is appropriate under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to have so many unknown defendants all in the same case. In the nomenclature of civil litigation, the question is whether the joinder of all the defendants in one action is appropriate.

In three of the BitTorrent copyright cases pending in federal court in Washington DC brought by the US Copyright Group on behalf of a handful of independent film makers, groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU and others argued improper joinder. These organizations filed amicus briefs in the cases of Call of the Wild Movie v. Does 1 – 1,062, Maverick Entertainment v. Does 1 – 4,350, and Donkeyball Movie v. Does 1 – 171, arguing that joining all the defendants in one action violated Rule 20 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The court rejected these arguments, finding that joinder was proper, at least in such early stages of the litigation where the defendants had not yet been identified.

The court considered three factors when answering the question of proper joinder: (1) whether the claims arose from the same transaction or occurrence or series of transactions or occurrences, (2) whether the legal and factual questions are common to all defendants, (3) and whether joinder would cause prejudice to any party or needless delay.

Same transaction or occurrence

The court observed that claims against joined parties must be “logically related,” and that this is a flexible test, with courts seeking the broadest possible scope of action. The court held that the claims against the BitTorrent users were logically related, based on plaintiffs’ allegations that the BitTorrent protocol makes every downloader of a file also an uploader, and accordingly, every user who has a copy of the infringing file on the network must necessarily be a source of download for that infringing file. This is an interesting finding, in that the strength of plaintiffs’ allegations were based on how BitTorrent works.

Common legal and factual questions

As for this second factor, the court found that the legal and factual questions were common because the parties would be litigating the same copyright claims, and all of the claims related to the use of BitTorrent.

Prejudice or needless delay

The court said some intriguing things about the interests of the parties in making its findings on this factor. For one, it said that leaving all the defendants joined in the same action would benefit them all, in that they would be able to see the defenses that other defendants were making. The court also expressed concern in favor of the efficiencies afforded the plaintiffs in filing these mass lawsuits. The plaintiff movie studios have been criticized for filing suit against large numbers of defendants in one action rather than separate suits against each defendant (and thereby having to pay only one filing fee to start the action versus several thousand filing fees). The court saw this question squarely in favor of plaintiff. It found that forcing plaintiffs to administer multiple actions, and having to pay the filing fees in all those actions “would certainly not be in the ‘interests of convenience and judicial economy,’ or ‘secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of the action.'”

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.

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