How Far Should Google Go To Protect User Privacy In Lawsuits?

from the questions-questions dept

We’ve already discussed the ridiculous circumstances under which a model, Liskula Cohen, ended up getting a judge to order Google to reveal an anonymous blogger who Cohen felt defamed her by calling her a “skank,” among other things. That no longer anonymous blogger, Rosemary Port, is now planning to sue Google, though it seems her chances of winning are slim to none. Still, the whole thing did raise questions about the level to which Google should go to protect the anonymity of people who use its services.

This issue is getting more attention, as Google has apparently alerted some anonymous Caribbean journalists that it may hand over their information due to a defamation lawsuit filed against the journalists, concerning their investigations into corruption in the famed vacation resort Turks & Caicos Islands. One of the people accused of being involved in the corruption filed the lawsuit, and Google sent the site a letter, saying:

To comply with the law, unless you provide us with a copy of a motion to quash the subpoena (or other formal objection filed in court) via email at legal-support@google.com by 5pm Pacific Time on September 16, 2009, Google will assume you do not have an objection to production of the requested information and may provide responsive documents on this date.

Some are making a big “First Amendment” deal out of this, but it’s not clear that’s such a huge deal. Google, as a private company, can choose to reveal that information, and appears to be properly notifying the people in question of the legal situation and allowing them to respond. But, of course, some insist that Google should stand up for the privacy rights of its users, and there’s an argument to be made there. How far should Google be expected to go to defend the privacy of its users in the face of a court order or subpoena? Given Google’s reputation as being user friendly, many would expect it to go quite far, but is that reasonable? Is there a balance between obeying court orders and subpoenas and fighting for its users’ rights? Or should Google always default to defending its users’ rights as far as possible?

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Comments on “How Far Should Google Go To Protect User Privacy In Lawsuits?”

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39 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Flip the question

Let’s look at this another way.

How far would a person go to protect family or friend? Would you lie or “go silent” in the face of a judges order in court?

What about an mere acquaintance or business associate? How far would you go?

Now keep in mind, Google is not a relative nor is Google your best friend.

Anonymous Coward says:

As long as Google –

a) doesn’t hand over the information without a court order/subpeona

b) gives the affected user enough advance warning to fight it in court

then I don’t see too many problems.

Can a lawyer file a motion to quash on behalf on “John Doe” – i.e. file the motion without revealing the defendant’s identity to the ccurt?

Rick Pool (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Sorry to impose — the true facts. Check to see if that “leak” was legal — As Scooter Libby learned, you cannot illegally leak classified information. Of course, this document published to Wikileak was redacted by court order, Chap. It was not legal — at least one thing that Libby exposed that was correct- our legal protections. In this matter, the legal consequences are basic.

Josh (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Just wondering, did you click through to the articles I linked? Cause it sounds like you didn’t. FTA: “A trail of evidence dug up by the TCI Journal, a UK commission of inquiry, and others, showed that foreign property developers were giving millions in secret loans and payments to senior Islander politicians, including an alleged $500,000 cash payment to the Island’s now former Premier, Michael Misick.”

Now those “foreign property developers” have filed suite in California asking for the IP address of the TCI Journal’s email account with Gmail.

From the way TFA reads it says that the file sent to wikileaks was the original court document and there was a court order that said the media could not report on it. But that was overturned. FTA: “The Commission of Inquiry Final Report was released on the 18th of July this year in significatly redacted form. A full version was released by WikiLeaks. A High Court case ensued which initially enjoined all media in the Islands from reporting the redacted findings, however within a few days this restriction was overturned.”.

So basically, the company asking for the info from Google did not like the fact that their name showed up in the court document and made it online. So they filed a supoena for information. Again, FTA: “Subpoenas for records are rubber-stamped by US courts, meaning that anyone in a position to start law suits in California can obtain private information about Gmail users who are not in a position to respond in kind, including cash-strapped corruption busting journalists from the Caribbean.”

Sounds to me like this is a case of abuse by a powerful company. Not a case of the “leak” being illegal.

But who are we to let the facts get in the way…Right?

Josh (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Hmmm. I think I just fell for a troll from the company named. If you click his profile you see that he has exactly 3 posts to his registered name. 3 guesses as to which article they are on…And the first 2 don’t count. I betcha If we google his name we find he works in PR for the company. ๐Ÿ™‚

But then again. He may not. Unless there are lots more Rick Pool’s out there. Of course I’m sure he’s not the “Rick’s Pools” in southern california. ๐Ÿ™‚

Rick Pool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Search away

Sorry to burst your bubble. I am no PR plant. You might want to search lawyers instead of pr, but you will find I have no affiliation with any parties in this legal case. I do however, wish to find out how this ends for one of my own cases. Indeed, the developers’ names were redacted by court order sir whereby making it illegal to leak it. This is a fact. Scooter Libby leaked state secrets that were protected by legal orders – it is no different, my friend. Search away on me and I will give you two guesses on how I feel about uneducated anonymous commenters.

Josh (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Search away

It’s a good thing I didn’t post anonymously then huh. And I did say that you were most likely not a plant. I did google your name. But the only Rick Pool I could find was a listed as the VP of a company called Headstrong (http://www.linkedin.com/pub/rick-pool/4/285/676). Which is why I left my statement the way it was.

And if you read the rest of my comments you would have seen that I did agree with you that the docuement was leaked, full document, while the official copy was redacted. However, the court later determined that the un-redacted copy was not in violation and was not at issue with it being released.

Furthermore, I take exception to you assuming that I’m uneducated, for all you know, I work for the company in the article. How does being “anonymous”, especially in a forum where everyone is that way regardless of what you say your name is, even begin to point at ones education, or lack thereof?

Anonymous Coward says:

Google should not fight at all.

One of the things about being an “innocent host” is that they should be entirely and completely cooperative with court orders, summons, and other legal requests. It would be up to the user(s) that is affected by the legal action to do their work if and when they actually get served.

Google gains nothing from being obstructionist, if anything, they run the risk of finding themselves getting into further legal trouble by no cooperating. It’s pretty simple, nothing to lose by cooperating, more to lose by being obstructionist.

This should be the basic requirements of any “innocent ISP / Host” deal. If it isn’t you, you need to tell the court who your client / customer / user is. There should be no middle ground.

yourrealname (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I believe your strategy is the same one that backfired on Yahoo in China a year or 2 ago when they outed anonymous political bloggers at the request of the Chinese government. The bloggers were quickly imprisoned never to be herd from again. This resulted in a public backlash against Yahoo here in the US as well as from human rights groups like Amnesty International.

Allen (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Err, No. China’s legal system is somewhat different from that of the US. Google does have the ability to oppose court requests in the US – Yahoo’s China operation had much more limited options. Same for Google’s China JV for that matter.

Not that I agree totally with the A.C. Google should not immediately handover user information without giving the user a chance to respond. Which sounds pretty much like what they are doing anyway.

some old guy says:

Re: Re:

Google gains nothing from being obstructionist, if anything, they run the risk of finding themselves getting into further legal trouble by no cooperating. It’s pretty simple, nothing to lose by cooperating, more to lose by being obstructionist.

You couldnt be any more wrong.

If google alienates its users, they will leave google, and then google will go out of business.

If google spends its resources protecting its users, it will suffer slightly in profits, but will increase the loyalty of its userbase protecting its future.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Google should defend the right of journalists to challenge corruption online because that’s the right thing to do.

While I agree with you conceptually, let me ask a question: what if it IS defamatory? What if the “reporters” lied?

I’m not saying that’s the case here. I assume it’s really corruption. But if someone proves in court that there is defamation, then shouldn’t Google give up the info? Otherwise it’s a free pass to lie.

Mike says:

Do you have any idea how many subpoenas a company Google’s size gets every day? It is the user’s obligation to file a motion to quash. There’s no way Google could ever fight them all.

Google hosts content for FREE, it’s supposed to provide free legal defense too?? Giving users an opportunity to defend themselves is the right thing.

Also note that when the DOJ wanted search records en mass, Google was the only one who fought it. Those are the privacy battles they should be fighting, not providing free legal services to random individual’s personal conflicts.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think its complicated

Although I think that Google should ALWAYS follow the law as the law is; we know that Google has a past of trying to change laws. I think it is quite obvious that this case is screwing over someone by a court system based on old laws where ‘blogs’ and instant communication did not exist. Basically any flamer can get sued. So, Google should hand over the information; however, in this circumstance should Google lend this woman a Legal hand?
Not only do I feel like this would be a kind gesture, but perhaps with the legal backing and technological giant influence, I think the outcome could fix laws.

Pjerky (profile) says:

Very Complex...

This is a very complex issue I think. On one hand I have always looked up to Google as a very respectable organization and have come to expect much from them in terms of protecting rights and privacy. On the other hand their history has been more about general rights, not rights for a specific person and it is a lot to expect them to deny court orders in all cases when they are trying to make things better for all.

I personally hate that these people and companies overreact to mouthy bloggers and I really support protecting anonymity just to shut down frivolous lawsuits. I would like to think that if I were in Google’s position I would fight tooth and nail to protect this ideology of mine. But I really can’t say for sure what I would do because if you go too far then you risk shutting down your business and making your employees lose their jobs and I can’t support that results either.

In this case, I think Google did the right thing by notifying the user weeks in advance so that they can take steps to protect their anonymity if they choose to do so. The whole situation is very frustrating. But I would like to see them focus on changing laws to protect all rights instead of protecting a few individuals that started the fight by running their mouths too much.

Future Masnick says:

Infringe everything infringeable. Always.

Privacy is no less intangible than the latest music and movies and all your worst secrets want to be free. The greedy hoarding of your own personal information via a government-granted monopoly right fosters nothing but lies, deceit and manipulation. The world would be better off if everyone knew everything about everyone everywhere.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Infringe everything infringeable. Always.

Privacy is no less intangible than the latest music and movies and all your worst secrets want to be free. The greedy hoarding of your own personal information via a government-granted monopoly right fosters nothing but lies, deceit and manipulation. The world would be better off if everyone knew everything about everyone everywhere.

Funny stuff, as always. Please keep it up. But, seriously, you could try a little harder. I mean, there isn’t any gov’t granted monopoly for privacy and your identity is actually a scarce good… but, I know, I know… nitpicking a joke. I just think you could do a better job.

Luci says:

Re: Re:

Okay, so I decided to not go anon on this while I break it all down for you. See, Google isn’t just one company, it’s a conglomerate of a LOT of smaller companies in different countries, where they are required to follow the laws of those countries. So, let’s break down the points from the article you linked, shall we:

* The company refuses to give the U.S. government records of impersonal data regarding searches that threaten no one, but happily provides information about potential dissidents to the tyrannical, repressive dictators in Beijing.

China. Different country, different laws. In China, they would have been arrested if they didn’t reveal this information, and then? Well, the government would have gotten the names, anyways.

* The company disregards commemorations of national American holidays such as Memorial Day, but never forgets to remind users about Halloween and Earth Day.

This is their choice if they skip over some holidays, of course, but I’ve not seen them ‘miss’ a holiday for us. You could always ask them why they missed it? But then again, they didn’t miss Independence Day, did they. Huh.

* The company has refused to link to some news sources critical of radical Islam, but hosts blogs containing homosexual pornography.

Again, this is a choice. They can get into the middle of the religious boondoggle, or leave it alone. Perhaps they are looking after the safety of their employees? But you’d rather they stick out the necks of the people who work for them to satisfy your burning hatreds, right?

* The company hosts blogs promoting “boy love” and sexual relationships between men and adolescents, but refuses to run ads from a Christian ministry to homosexuals.

Let me see, they allow what they want, and avoid what many consider to be hate speech, right? Well, not always. So they’re a little inconsistent, right? Start your own hate mongering search engine?

* The company’s top executive presides over a business that makes it easy to find out nearly anything about anyone, but protests when people use his service to find out about him.

Yeah, that’s standard hypocrisy. Live with it, because it happens in ALL companies.

* The company has blocked ads attacking Bill and Hillary Clinton, but welcomes ads attacking President Bush and other Republican leaders.

Yeah? And your point is…?

* The company, apparently in its bid to romance Beijing, wiped Taiwan, an independent and free island nation, off the face of its Internet maps.

Did they do that for China? Or for Taiwan? Seems a lot of countries don’t like Google Maps, most particularly for the street view feature.

* The company, one of the great free enterprise success stories of the decade, gives nearly all of its political donations to those who seek to rein in and regulate capitalism.

So because they do what they believe with their own money, in a society that is open to doing such things so long as they are legal, and this is, they are evil? Sorry, not buying it.

Go shill somewhere else.

Yeebok (profile) says:

Hosting blogs .. ur doin' it rite

I think that what should happen is what looks to have happened.

Google receives a legal request. They forward that on to the relevant party and advise them of what has transpired. The person can then take whatever action they see fit.

Google shouldn’t breach the law for a vitriolic individual. To improve user’s rights sure, but not for some sheila who may or may not be accurate in labelling the other party a skank. It’s the blogger’s opinion so -they- should defend it. Google’s given them opportunity to avoid it in the case mentioned above.

Joe Szilagyi (profile) says:

Keep it simple unless it's a special case

As soon as Google receives a court order they should immediately notify the user(s) in question and turn over all possible information related to the situation to the user(s) in question, so that the the affected parties can fight it.

At least in the USA, it’s not Google’s fight, to fight, unless the request was some absurd mass exposure situation foolishly requested by a stupid judge or some nonsensical law getting passed somewhere, and they chose to take a stand.

For more mundane court issues (libel, defamation, harassment, etc.) it’s not their battle, nor any other provider’s, nor should it be.

Beta says:

a modest proposal

Suppose these users had been anonymous (or pseudonymous) from the start, and Google had no information about them other than their user names, password hashes and the content itself. Then they could hand it all over to the courts (or, heck, anybody who asked for it) without qualm and the users would be safe.

The best way to protect your clients’ private information is not to collect it.

Josh (profile) says:

Not a blogger

I saw this story yesterday, on CNN.com I think, and it wasn’t just that the court asked for the identitiy of a blogger. It was asking for the IP address of someone who uploaded some documents to WikiLeaks using a gmail email address. Now, like Mike said, if the company has proven to the court that this really is defamation, then Google should not fight the court order. But if all this is, is an underhanded technique to get at a whistleblower…Shame on Google (and the courts).

I’ll see if I can find the article again.

Rick Pool (profile) says:

Re: Not a blogger

Sorry to impose — the true facts. Check to see if that “leak” was legal — As Scooter Libby learned, you cannot illegally leak classified information. Of course, this document published to Wikileak was redacted by court order, Chap. It was not legal — at least one thing that Libby exposed that was correct- our legal protections. In this matter, the legal consequences are basic.

MarcoVincenzo (profile) says:

Google, and any other company, by collecting personal information on its customers should have the fiduciary duty to protect that information at any cost. Personally, I’d prefer it if they simply anonymized their services and couldn’t disclose personal information, but as long as they choose to collect it and keep it, they should have the responsibility to safeguard it.

Rick Pool (profile) says:

Google at fault?

A few opinions here about this matter – and I think that the author did a decent job of sorting this out. One, the internet was not designed to be annonymous – it’s the same as your phone or computer or mail (all traceable). Second, what integrity should be afforded to someone who does not reveal their name yet makes accusations with innuendo failing to cite sources? I think none. Third, this is a slippery sloop, the internet blogging/gossip, it guarantees the lowest life forms to “report” whatever they want at the expense of whomever they wish. Bring them into the light and let that cleanse the dirt from their hands. I am not even going to comment about the legal remedy guaranteeing an accused to face his accuser. The nerve.

Rick Pool (profile) says:

“Josh” we speak a different language for sure. Uneducated to me means that you didn’t educate yourself on the facts and law on the matter we are discussing. I am sure you are prefectly learned. The court did not reverse the supression order – it merely didn’t confirm the TPO because the leak had gone too far at that point and it was out of the court’s hands as to which media outlets had discvered it.

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