The following post originally appeared on Techdirt on 11/3/17.
The news about the DOJ trying to subpoena Twitter calls to mind an another egregious example of the government trying to unmask an anonymous speaker earlier this year. Remember when the federal government tried to compel Twitter to divulge the identity of a user who had been critical of the Trump administration? This incident was troubling enough on its face: there’s no place in a free society for a government to come after a critic of it. But largely overlooked in the worthy outrage over the bald-faced attempt to punish a dissenting voice was the government’s simultaneous attempt to prevent Twitter from telling anyone that the government was demanding this information. Because Twitter refused to comply with that demand, the affected user was able to get counsel and the world was able to know how the government was abusing its authority. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and by shining a light on the government’s abusive behavior it was able to be stopped.
That storm may have blown over, but the general issues raised by the incident continue to affect Internet platforms – and by extension their users and their speech. A significant problem we keep having to contend with is not only what happens when the government demands information about users from platforms, but what happens when it then compels the same platforms to keep those demands a secret. These secrecy demands are often called different things and are born from separate statutory mechanisms, but they all boil down to being some form of gag over the platform’s ability to speak, with the same equally troubling implications. We’ve talked before about how important it is that platforms be able to protect their users’ right to speak anonymously. That right is part and parcel of the First Amendment because there are many people who would not be able to speak if they were forced to reveal their identities in order to do so. Public discourse, and the benefit the public gets from it, would then suffer in the absence of their contributions. But it’s one thing to say that people have the right to speak anonymously; it’s another to make that right meaningful. If civil plaintiffs, or, worse, the government, can too easily force anonymous speakers to be unmasked then the right to speak anonymously will only be illusory. For it to be something speakers can depend on to enable them to speak freely there have to be effective barriers preventing that anonymity from too casually being stripped by unjust demands.
One key way to prevent illegitimate unmasking demands is to fight back against them. But no one can fight back against what they are unaware of. Platforms arethus increasingly pushing back against the gags preventing them from disclosing that they have received discovery demands as a way to protect their communities of users.
While each type of demand varies in its particulars (for instance a civil subpoena is different from a grand jury subpoena, which is different than an NSL, which is different from the 19 USC Section 1509 summons that was used against Twitter in the quest to discover the Trump critic), as well as the rationale for why the demanding party might have sought to preserve the secrecy around the demand with some sort of gag, all of these unmasking demands still ultimately challenge the durability of an online speaker’s right to remain anonymous. Which is why rulings that preserve, or, worse, even strengthen, gag rules are so troubling because they make it all the more difficult, if not outright impossible, to protect legitimate speech from illegitimate unmasking demands.
And that matters. Returning to the example about the fishing expedition to unmask a critic, while it’s great that in this particular case the government quickly dropped its demand on Twitter, questions remain. Was Twitter the only platform the government went after? Perhaps, but how would we know? How would we know if this was the only speech it had chosen to investigate, or the 1509 summons the only unmasking instrument it had used to try to identify the speaker? If the other platforms it demanded information from were, quite reasonably, cowed by an accompanying demand for secrecy (the sanctions for violating such an order can be serious), we might never know the answers to these questions. The government could be continuing its attacks on its apparently no-longer-anonymous critics unabated, and speakers who depended on anonymity would unknowingly be putting themselves at risk when they continued to speak.
This state of affairs is an affront to the First Amendment. The First Amendment was intended in large part to enable people to speak truth to power, but when we make it too hard for platforms to be partners in protecting that right it entrenches that power. There are a lot of ways that platforms should have the ability to be that partner, but one of them must be the basic ability to tell us when that right is under threat.