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Why Didn't Google Or Comcast Protect The Identity Of Anonymous Church Blogger Who Was Outed?

from the criminal-subpoenas-deserve-privacy-too dept

You may recall the story we discussed recently concerning a church in Florida, where one member of the church was anonymously blogging critical comments about the church. Another member of the same church, who was heavily involved in the church hierarchy, was also a local police officer and used that position to get subpoenas and to reveal the blogger's identity. Once he did so, he dropped the investigation, destroyed the records and told the church leaders who it was. The whole thing was highly questionable. At the time, we questioned why the state's attorney was willing to issue subpoenas on such an issue.

Paul Levy wanted to know the answer to another question: why did both Google and Comcast cough up this guy's identifying information without even giving him a chance to quash the subpoenas. He asked both companies and the answer he got is, basically, that they immediately cough up info if it's a criminal subpoena rather than a civil one:
Although neither Google nor Comcast generally opposes outright civil subpoenas to identify their users, both have a good history of insisting that the enforcement of such subpoenas be deferred until they have a chance to give notice to the customers, so that the customers will have a chance to defend their anonymity. This practice made their failure to defend their customerís rights in this instance all the more surprising. I inquired of their legal departments why they acted as they did. I was disappointed to learn that neither company customarily asks any questions or gives any notice to customers when their receive subpoenas in connection with a criminal investigation. Instead, they verify only that the subpoena forms are properly filled out and are issued by courts of competent jurisdiction.
Considering how frequently we hear stories of governments abusing their investigative power, it's a bit troubling that these companies do not, in fact, go further in protecting their customers' rights even in cases of criminal subpoenas. Levy notes that, unlike those two companies, many actual media companies are much better at resisting criminal subpoenas when appropriate:
The discussion reminded me that although the major ISPís have generally behaved well when they receive civil subpoenas to identify their users, insisting that their users get notice and an opportunity to seek to quash, they lag far behind the mainstream media when it comes to criminal subpoenas.   Newspapers and broadcasters have a forty-year history of fighting criminal investigators who issue subpoenas to identify their sources.  Newspaper and television reporters regularly accept incarceration as the price that sometimes has to be paid for this principle.  I canít think of an ISP that has stood up to state power so strongly.

In least in some cases, that history has led media companies to resist criminal subpoenas to identify bloggers, although the media lawyers present evinced wide variation in the value that they placed on the content provided by users who comment on media web sites.  All agreed that, at the very least, users should get notice so that they can move to quash on their own.  And after the panel Barbara Wall, a vice-president of the Gannett media chain, discussed with me a number of cases around the country where Gannett has successfully resisted criminal subpoenas to identify the users of the web sites of some of their outlets around the country.  Sometimes Gannett is able to talk to prosecutors out of pursuing subpoenas, and sometimes it beats them in court.  (It appears that Gannett adopted a firm policy in response to an embarrassing incident involving one of its own papers.).
This is a good point and one that doesn't get much attention in the tech space. Hopefully, more tech service providers will begin to recognize that their customers have rights in criminal investigations as well as in civil lawsuits.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 3:13pm

    Google "cooperates" with gov't.

    In the true sense of "co-", together = operating together.

    Besides, Google has zero interest in any given individual, yet great interest in pleasing gov't. Don't expect a change.

     

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

  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 3:17pm

    I know the teleco's receive money for handing over wiretaps, I am pretty sure that an ISP would receive the same amount for handing over identity of its subscribers.

     

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

  3.  
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    harbingerofdoom (profile), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 4:14pm

    the link for the embarrassing incident appears to currently be borked

    perhaps this is the URL you are after?
    http://pubcit.typepad.com/clpblog/2010/11/gannett-shamed-into-changing-policy-on-responding- to-request-to-identify-blog-comments.html

     

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

  4.  
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    Chris in Utah (profile), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 6:07pm

    I will say the XGen may love the distribution of the net and all that implies but they seem to be forgetting the other protection aspects. It bugs

    Hopes are often liars. Anybody have some ideas for solutions rather than prayer?

     

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

  5.  
    icon
    ALANTONE (profile), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 6:20pm

    Only money talks

    The guy who sued only got $50,000 from the City and state. Maybe $500,000 or $5,000,000 would get the attention of everyone.

    http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/5792/53/

     

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

  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 6:50pm

    Although, I welcome these companies to do what they can to help protect the rights of their users; this should be more of the courts job in the first place. These subpoenas should have been pushed back by the court.

     

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

  7.  
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    SLK8ne, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 9:47pm

    Intollerable!

    I am a Christian. In Florida. And frankly I think these hypocritical, corrupt, fools should have to close their doors. Maybe the IRS should audit them. The pastor should be defrocked for going along with this garbage, and the cop should be fired and never allowed to work in law enforcement again. Period.

     

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

  8.  
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    Josef Anvil (profile), Nov 23rd, 2010 @ 1:11am

    Epic Fail at the TOP

    Google and Comcast did fail the customer by complying with the subpoenas without alerting the customer, but what they did wasn't wrong. These companies were complying with a valid court order.

    The State and City and Church all seem to be guilty of criminal activity.

    The funniest bit in all of this seems to be that church reacted by declaring the blogger a sinner, and banning him from the church. The cop/deacon who abused his authority and opened a bogus investigation and then destroyed evidence is still in the church. It seems the God in this church only thinks sinners are people who do not agree with the pastor.

     

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

  9.  
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    abc gum, Nov 23rd, 2010 @ 5:15am

    The destruction of evidence in a criminal investigation is a felony ... or at least that is what I used to think, maybe the laws in Florida are different.

     

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

  10.  
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    K. Curry-Robinson, Nov 23rd, 2010 @ 7:41am

    1st amendment

    This person has the right to blog about whatever and whoever he wants to. So for that officer to go and get a subpoena to reveal that man's identity was a act of abusing his power. If that Blogger didn't want anybody to know who he was, as long as he wasn't threatening the church or its members, he should have been able to keep his identity secret. That was his personal opinion.*shakes my head*

     

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

  11.  
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    Bruce, Nov 23rd, 2010 @ 7:52am

    People are people even when uniformed or ordained

    Lessons to be learned: Life is not fair. Cops are not always your friend. Churches officials are money-driven. Church officials and cops are often greedy people and greedy people bend laws and break laws. Blogging anonymously does not guarantee privacy. People defend themselves when attacked, even if the attacks are justified.

     

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

  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 23rd, 2010 @ 9:11am

    Re: People are people even when uniformed or ordained

    ..and shouldn't these people be held to a MUCH higher standard? We are talking about the police which have the ultimate authority over your life

    everyone involved in this investigation should be punched in the mouth

    maybe if that were to happen more often, we wouldn't have these sorts of social issues

     

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

  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 23rd, 2010 @ 2:57pm

    Google is a Govt

     

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

  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 23rd, 2010 @ 2:57pm

    Google is a Govt Brown-Noser

    Do no evil? Ha!

     

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

  15.  
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    ranon (profile), Nov 23rd, 2010 @ 10:23pm

    Google Vs Newspapers

    Newspapers and broadcasters have a forty-year history of fighting criminal investigators who issue subpoenas to identify their sources

    We should not compare Google bloggers and newspaper sources in this case. A newspaper reporter has met his source multiple times and has made a determination about his trustworthiness and value. Google has never met their blogger and has no idea who the blogger is. The blogger may actually be a criminal or, as in this case he/she may be an anonymous activist. Google has little information to make such value judgments.

    So we must not expect that Google will protect their bloggers to the same extent as as newspaper sources. e.g. going to prison for them etc.

     

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

  16.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 24th, 2010 @ 7:56am

    Re: Google Vs Newspapers

    We should not compare Google bloggers and newspaper sources in this case. A newspaper reporter has met his source multiple times and has made a determination about his trustworthiness and value.

    Umm, no. Sometimes they have no idea who their actually is. Example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_throat

    The blogger may actually be a criminal or, as in this case he/she may be an anonymous activist.

    The same can be true of newspaper sources as well. You really don't seem to know what you're talking about.

     

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

  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 24th, 2010 @ 7:57am

    Re: Re: Google Vs Newspapers

    That should have been "Sometimes they have no idea who their source actually is."

     

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

  18.  
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    ranon (profile), Nov 24th, 2010 @ 12:53pm

    Re: Re: Re: Google Vs Newspapers

    Umm, no. Sometimes they have no idea who their source actually is. Example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_throat

    Woodward and Bernstein knew the identity of Deep throat. they were the ones who finally confirmed that it was Mark Felt.

    If google is to protect a blogger from a criminal process, Google will not know the blogger. So how will it know right away whether the blogger is a paedophile, scammer, or an activist fighting for someone's rights.

    Some might say that this can be found out by reading through the blog, but that is placing undue burden on Google. This is something that is best decided by the court system whether the person deserves to be anonymous or not and whether the person then deserves prosecution or not.

     

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


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