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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Comments on “Sorry, But We Don't Just Hand Out Information On Our Commenters”

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Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

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.

Jay (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 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!

drewmerc (profile) says:

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)

crade (profile) says:

Re: 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.

Anonymous Coward says:

Or you could have...

responded as follows:

?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.?

Overcast (profile) says:

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.

Anonymous Coward says:

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 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!

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