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.


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