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Sorry, But We Don't Just Hand Out Information On Our Commenters

from the we-believe-in-the-first-amendment dept

I've mentioned in the past that we receive about one legal threat per month around here. However, until last week, we had never (knowingly) received a subpoena for any information on the site. Last week, however, we were emailed a subpoena that had apparently been issued to try to find out some information about commenters on a particular Techdirt blog post, which the lawyer's clients were claiming were defamatory. We've discussed multiple times on the site both the importance of protecting anonymity online, as well as the fact that many US federal courts have recognized that anonymous blog comments are to be judged against the First Amendment when determining if the identity of their author should be revealed.

Since this is something that we certainly believe strongly in, we're not about to just roll over and give out information on commenters, without a clear legal requirement to do so. Our policy is pretty firm that we believe that it's proper to protect the interests of our community, within legal boundaries (of course). There were some oddities with this subpoena -- issued from a Florida court -- including the fact that it had apparently initially been issued way back in January and sent to a random law firm in Philadelphia that I've never heard of, which has never represented Techdirt/Floor64 and certainly is not authorized to accept subpoenas on our behalf. Thus, we never received it when it was first sent out -- but were finally emailed a copy last week.

The actual subpoena came from a lawyer representing John Maragoudakis, who goes by the name John Markis, and runs a company called Trusted Traditions, which sells stuff on eBay. The blog post in question was from way back in 2002, and was about some people who were arrested for "shill bidding" on eBay. In 2009, someone posted a comment, making certain allegations about Maragoudakis/Markis and Trusted Traditions that he claims are false and defamatory, and he has already taken legal action against the individual he believes was making such posts around the web.

After looking over the details, and trying (and failing) to get the lawyer who issued the subpoena on the phone, Paul Alan Levy from Public Citizen Litigation Group helped us respond in writing to the subpoena, pointing out some of the basic procedural errors, but also (more importantly) highlighting the key First Amendment issues raised, along with the associated case law, to make it clear that we don't take such requests lightly, and don't just hand over information because something official-looking shows up demanding it.

What's even odder, in this case, is that there's already a lawsuit going on by Maragoudakis/Markis against the person who he believes posted the content in question. In other words, he's already pretty sure he knows who wrote the content in question -- meaning that they already have a perfectly acceptable means of using the discovery process with that individual to find out if he made the comments on Techdirt. So, they don't need us to say if it's him. And, if it's not him, then not only is the subpoena almost certainly past the statute of limitations on defamation, but it's highly questionable that we should just reveal information on a commenter because someone hopes that it's another person they already sued. Either way, it comes across as a fishing expedition, based on the hopes that sites won't protect the rights of their community, and will just hand over the information. We're not about to just hand such information over without a real legal basis (even if some publications out there apparently don't protect their community's anonymity).

You can read our entire response below. None of this means, of course, that commenters are immune from having their info subpoenaed, but we will satisfy ourselves that there is a legal basis for the request before handing over any information.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    icon
    Dark Helmet (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 11:26am

    Nice...

    Big ups, Mike. It's good to know how this site views this stuff, particularly with all the 1st amendment talk going on around here....

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    icon
    Andrew (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 11:31am

    Swanky signature!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    icon
    Dark Helmet (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 11:41am

    LOL...

    Go back to old post and read the first comment: "Sounds as though they were using multiple identities and bidded against themselves."

    The next five comments respond to that first one, but they all come from the same IP Address, assuming backdating the snowflake tags works correctly....

     

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  4.  
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    rabbit wise (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 11:42am

    The condescension just drips.

    There needs to be a P.S. -
    P.S. - You are stupid. Go away now.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    icon
    Esahc (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 11:43am

    Re:

    I don't know, seems a bit loopy to me.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    icon
    A Dan (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 11:44am

    Re: LOL...

    The snowflakes are IP address-specific? I didn't know that.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    icon
    drewmerc (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 11:47am

    so your saying business out of Lauderdale by the name of Sea Trusted Traditions, Inc. is owned by a former federal convict. He goes by the name of John Markis when his real name is John Maragoudakis and a search on the federal bureau of prisons website will confim this. Once a crook always a crook BUYER BEWARE in my opinion this guys preys on the elderly and is a real smooth con artist out to rip off unsuspecting people by selling overgraded currency to the general public. Once a crook always a crook.

    /sarcasm (tagged sarcasm due to me being in uk and everybody knows what our laws are like, so understand this post is a piss take, i guess that will cover me when i'm sued)

     

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  8.  
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    A Dan (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 11:52am

    Re:

    It might have even been worth stating the begin sarcasm tag. Your post seems repetitive, so some people might stop after the first couple sentences.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
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    crade (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 11:54am

    Why would you even store identifying info about commentators so long? Is there some sort of legal requirement to do so?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    icon
    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 12:09pm

    Re: Re: LOL...

    They're designed to identify unique posters, and that's the only way I know of so I would guess yes.

    I'm curious now, what is that called? I want to look up if it's a picture based on an algorithm based on the IP address like I originally thought or if it's just a random picture assigned to that IP address.

     

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  11.  
    identicon
    Sohrab Osati, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 12:13pm

    Running a tech site myself, I sometimes worry about how the big companies will react to our posts, as well as those of our commenters. Its nice to see you guys not just roll over mike. We appreciate that because we can understand your position.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
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    cc (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 12:30pm

    +1 for TechDirt

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 12:35pm

    Or you could have...

    responded as follows:

    http://countlazarus.wordpress.com/2006/11/20/arkell-v-pressdram/

    “We acknowledge your letter of 29th April referring to Mr J. Arkell. We note that Mr Arkell’s attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you would inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off.”

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    iamtheky, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 12:38pm

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identicon

    these ones from www.gravatar.com according to the source.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    Shawn (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 12:45pm

    Re: Re: Re: LOL...

    http://en.gravatar.com/

    they are 'gravatars'

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 12:50pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: LOL...

    But they're based off of E-Mail addresses. Do you have to enter your E-Mail address to post without a profile here? It's been a long time, but I don't remember that requirement.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 12:52pm

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
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    Overcast (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 12:56pm

    Streisand Effect!!

    It wasn't me anyway, but it would be fun to call that same law firm right after the case is settled, and assuming I lost... to ask about cost for bankruptcy.

    Credit Ratings are over-rated. I pay cash for most stuff anyway, just keep it high enough to get major items like a house. Low Credit will protect you more than many of the 'credit protection services', lol.

    Anymore in these days of 'identity theft' - you're better off sitting on cash in a small bank that knows you personally and having credit denied otherwise. If I can't get it, neither can anyone using my ID.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
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    Ron Currier (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 1:00pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: LOL...

    No anonymous comments don't need email addresses. I'd guess they are hashing the IP address instead of the email address in those cases.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    icon
    Jay (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 1:15pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: LOL...

    Yes. IIRC, there was a little bit of a debate on how to do this because we had at least three different ACs arguing but didn't have a way to track who exactly was who. This was quite a problem 2 months ago?

    Anyway, after quite a few posts regarding the problem, I believe that Mike implemented the current system that has worked wonders for identifying different ACs.

    Thanks Mike, for putting this up!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 1:17pm

    I like to thank Techdirt for not blocking TOR nodes. Not that it would stop proxies because it is easy to use proxychains(the program http://proxychains.sourceforge.net/) but it facilitates my privacy, protects me from litigious people and I'm grateful for that, with the added bonus that I took the burden of responsibility of Mike's hand and took responsibility for it.

    Yay go techdirt go!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 1:18pm

    Anyone want to learn how to use proxychains?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    icon
    Dark Helmet (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 1:20pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: LOL...

    Also, oddly, or perhaps not, I believe it coincided with the disappearance of Weird Harold / TheAntiMike....

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 1:24pm

    Complaint.

    The buttons "LoL", "interesting" or whatever don't work without javascript enabled, this is easy to fix using CSS instead of javascript.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    icon
    Jimr (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 1:37pm

    Ah this is why I read and post here!
    The freedom to call some an asshat if I had that personnel opinion about a particular individual or group in a article.

    Excellent Job!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    identicon
    Eo Nomine, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 2:03pm

    Can't help but notice that, despite it's staunch defense of anonymous commentors here, this site hasn't hesitating in publicly disclosing the location and workplace of anonymous commentors when that's served it's purposes. So I guess First Amendment protection doesn't extend to those who disagree

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
    identicon
    NullOp, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 2:05pm

    Freedom

    Yep, freedom of speech is a wonderful thing. Although I do think in the next few hundred years we will lose this right along with the right to keep and bare arms. So many people and groups are working day and night to make sure they are the only ones with "rights".

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 2:10pm

    Re:

    Do you have an example of this handy?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 2:27pm

    Re:

    The comments are a critical value element in the whole site. Storing them is of core importance.

    I imagine that storing the associated IP is trivial, and that it helps understand the continuity (which Anon coward is which) of the comment thread, while maintaining (almost) the same level of anonymity.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
    icon
    Andrew (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 2:46pm

    Re: Freedom

    Considering those said rights have only existed for a couple of hundred years, we're still in our prime! Yeah!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
    icon
    crade (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 2:48pm

    Re: Re:

    The comments are certainly critical to the site, I wasn't asking about those, as the reason they are kept is obvious. The anonymous commenters identifying info is a different story. There is a good reason not to store them longterm (so you can't be forced into disclosing it against your will), and the benefits of doing so (that I could of) think of are somewhat negligable. Maybe it's just integrated in the system and purging it would be a pain technically, but I just thought I'd ask.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
    icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 2:48pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: LOL...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
    icon
    crade (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 3:03pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    should be (that I think could of)
    man I write at this sucking stuff.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
    icon
    Rose M. Welch (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 3:05pm

    Re:

    I have seen Mike challenge anonymous commentors to disclose their own information when they argue against anonymity, but I haven't ever seen anyone's identify revealed on here. Cite your source.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35.  
    icon
    Rose M. Welch (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 3:05pm

    Re: Freedom

    I guess sweatshirts aren't so bad...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  36.  
    identicon
    AnonCow, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 4:31pm

    I need to ask a question: Did John Maragoudakis change his name to John Markis in order to hide past criminal convictions for shill bidding or because his friends nicknamed him Marmadukakis?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  37.  
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    The eejit (profile), Sep 24th, 2010 @ 3:17am

    Re:

    Why can't it be both?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  38.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 24th, 2010 @ 3:30am

    Put Cagney and Lacey on the case!

    Woof!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  39.  
    icon
    techflaws.org (profile), Sep 24th, 2010 @ 3:54am

    Re:

    I'm calling bullshit on that.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  40.  
    icon
    Marcel de Jong (profile), Sep 24th, 2010 @ 4:45am

    Has the letter since been removed? It doesn't show up on my machine. Or is it using a flash based reader?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  41.  
    identicon
    Matthew A. Sawtell, Sep 27th, 2010 @ 9:07am

    Reminds me of the Bruhaha in P.R. China a few months back...

    Reminds me a bit of the fireworks coming out of P.R. China where expats have failed to realize that the U.S. Constitution does not follow them around the world

    http://www.lostlaowai.com/blog/expat-stuff/warnings/laowai-gossip-foreigner-web-stalker-dep orted/

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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