Email privacy is weak even with court oversight

Huntington Ingalls Inc. v. Doe, 2012 WL 5897483 (N.D. Cal. November 21, 2012)

A federal court in California has allowed a party to subpoena Google to learn the identity of a Gmail account owner, even though that owner did nothing to involve himself in the dispute.

A contractor that plaintiff hired accidentally emailed “property” belonging to plaintiff to the wrong email address. (The court’s opinion is not clear on the nature of this “property,” but we are safe in assuming it was some sort of proprietary information.) Plaintiff sent messages to the Gmail account seeking return of the property, but the unknown account owner did not respond.

Plaintiff filed suit in federal court against the anonymous account holder (John Doe) seeking declaratory and injunctive relief (i.e., to get the property back). Since plaintiff did not know Doe’s identity, it sought expedited discovery so that it could subpoena Google for the identifying information.

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The court granted the motion for leave to send the subpoenas. It found that:

  • without the subpoena, plaintiff would have no other way to obtain “this most basic information”
  • the subpoena was the exclusive means available to plaintiff to protect its property interest
  • plaintiff’s proposed procedure guarded Doe’s due process rights by requiring Google to give Doe notice of the subpoena and an opportunity to object

The court’s opinion shows how any privacy interest in one’s email account information is tenuous at best. In this situation, the target of the unmasking efforts was, as they say, minding his own business, not doing anything to inject himself into any dispute.

Moreover, unlike many previous cases in which courts have required the party seeking discovery of an anonymous party’s identity to put forth facts showing it has a good case, there was no claim here that Doe did anything wrong. Instead, it was the sender’s mistake. One could find it unsettling to know that other peoples’ errors could cause a court to order his or her identity to be publicly revealed.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Bart Heird under this Creative Commons license.

Court deals blow to anonymous Bittorrent defendants’ efforts to challenge subpoenas

West Coast Productions v. Does 1 – 5,829, — F.Supp.2d —, 2011 WL 2292239 (D.D.C. June 10, 2011)

The judge in one of the well-known mass copyright cases filed by Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver a/k/a U.S. Copyright Group (West Coast Productions v. Does 1 – 5,829) has issued an order denying motions to quash filed by several of the unnamed defendants. Plaintiff had served subpoenas on the ISPs associated with the IP addresses allegedly involved in Bittorrent activity, seeking to learn the identity of those account holders.

The ruling is potentially troubling because the court refused to even consider the arguments presented by those anonymous parties who did not reveal their identity in connection with the motion to quash. Such an approach undermines, and indeed comes close to refusing altogether to recognize any privacy interest that a person may have concerning his or her ISP account information.

The court observed that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a party must identify himself or herself in the papers filed with the court. In some situations, however, a court may grant a “rare dispensation” of anonymity after taking into account the risk of unfairness to the party seeking anonymity as well as the general presumption of openness in judicial proceedings.

In this case, the court noted that other courts had “uniformly held that the privacy interest in [ISP account] information is minimal and not significant enough to warrant the special dispensation of anonymous filing.”

Absent from the court’s analysis was the potential for harm to defendants who were the subject of these subpoenas but might have the ability to demonstrate (anonymously) that they were not involved. In cases involving adult content, in particular, the harm of being publicly associated with that content — even if the association turns out to be in error — is one that should not be disregarded in this way. Moreover, taking away the ability of an anonymous defendant to challenge his unmasking will encourage extortionate-like behavior on the part of copyright plaintiffs hoping to extract a settlement early in the case. If writing a check is the only way to keep from having to turn one’s name over (and this case pretty much establishes that rule), then more settlements should be expected.

The court went on to reject the arguments in favor of motions to quash filed by John Does who had provided their contact information to the court. The court found that it was premature to rule on any objections based on a lack of personal jurisdiction because the defendants filing the motions had not actually been named as a party. And the court rejected the arguments that the defendants were improperly joined into the action, noting the allegations in the complaint that the IP addresses were involved in a single Bittorrent swarm.

Evan Brown is a Chicago-based attorney practicing technology and intellectual property law. Send email to ebrown@internetcases.com, call (630) 362-7237, follow on Twitter at @internetcases, and be sure to like Internet Cases on Facebook.

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.

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”.

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