Court dismisses class action against MySpace for violation of the Stored Communications Act

Hubbard v. MySpace, 2011 WL 2149456 (S.D.N.Y. June 1, 2011)

Plaintiff, who sued on behalf himself and others similarly situated, claimed that MySpace improperly turned over account information and private messages to law enforcement, even though there was a search warrant. Plaintiff claimed this violated the Stored Communications Act, 18 USC 2701 et seq.

MySpace moved to dismiss. The court granted the motion.

The version of the Stored Communications Act in effect at the time of the alleged wrongful disclosure in this case provided that a search warrant seeking the information must issue from a federal court “with jurisdiction over the offense under investigation,” or be “an equivalent State warrant.”

Plaintiff argued that the warrant sent to MySpace was not sufficient under the SCA (and should have been ignored) because (1) the state magistrate did not have jurisdiction to hear the felony that the cops were investigating plaintiff for, and (2) the magistrate did not have the power to issue search warrants across state lines.

The court rejected both of these arguments. In determining the warrant to be “an equivalent State warrant,” it looked to the way federal magistrates issue warrants in SCA cases. It held that the phrase “jurisdiction over the offense under investigation” refers to the power to issue warrants, not to the power to ultimately try the case. And the court looked to the legislative history around the Patriot Act amendments to conclude that SCA investigations give magistrate judges special powers to direct search warrants across state lines, because having to require cooperation with the courts in which an ISP actually exists might allow enough time for a terrorist to get away or strike again.

This case is worth noting for the wide scope the court establishes for valid search warrants under the SCA. It is also worth noting that the SCA has since been amended to make the scope more clearly this broad. 

Federal court applies 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 standard

It looked to the 1999 case of Columbia Ins. Co. v., 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.

Emails on laptop not protected by the Stored Communications Act

Thompson v. Ross, 2010 WL 3896533 (W.D. Pa. September 30, 2010)

Messages from Yahoo and AOL email accounts saved on laptop computer were not in “electronic storage” as defined by Stored Communications Act.

Plaintiff’s ex-girlfriend kept his laptop computer after the two of them broke up. The ex-girlfriend let two of her co-workers access some email messages stored on the computer. Plaintiff filed suit under the Stored Communications Act. Defendants moved to dismiss. The court granted the motion.

Under the Stored Communications Act (at 18 U.S.C. 2701), one is liable if he or she accesses without authorization a facility through which an electronic communication service is provided and thereby obtains, alters, or prevents authorized access to a wire or electronic communication while it is in electronic storage in such system.

The court held that the Stored Communications Act did not cover the email messages because they were not in “electronic storage” as defined at 18 U.S.C. 2510(17)(B). In relevant part, that section defines “electronic storage” as “any storage of such communication by an electronic communication service for purposes of backup protection of such communication.”

The court looked to the plain language of the statute, finding that the definition was not met because the messages were not stored by an electronic communication service. It rejected plaintiff’s arguments that the fact the messages were in “backup storage” extended the scope of the definition.

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Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, and unauthorized access

Monson v. The Whitby School, Inc., No. 09-1096, 2010 WL 3023873 (D.Conn. August 2, 2010)

Plaintiff Monson sued her former employer (a private school) for sex discrimination and related claims. The school filed counterclaims against Monson for, among other things, violation of (1) the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and (2) the Stored Communications Act (SCA).

The counterclaims were based on allegations that Monson gained unauthorized access to the school’s email server to unlawfully view and delete email messages contained in the email accounts of other school employees. Upon learning of her impending termination, the school alleged, Monson used this unauthorized access to delete more than 1,500 email messages. Further, the school alleged that after Monson was terminated, she intentionally deleted data and software programs that resided on her school-issued computers before she returned them to the school.

Monson moved to dismiss the counterclaims. The court denied the motion.

CFAA claim

Monson argued that the school had not adequately pled that her actions — accessing and deleting data and software — were unauthorized. The court rejected this argument, finding that while it may be implausible (a la Twombly and Iqbal) that Monson wasn’t authorized to access her own email account, there was no reason to find it implausible she was not authorized to access the email accounts of others.

SCA claim

The court dismissed the SCA claim for essentially the same reason. Monson had argued that the school’s “formulaic” statement that she had accessed the stored electronic communications were not pled with enough detail to state a claim. The court found that the allegations were sufficient.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user croncast under this Creative Commons license.

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