Nov 192017

Originally posted on Techdirt November 15, 2017.

Well, I was wrong: last week I lamented that we might never know how the Ninth Circuit ruled on Glassdoor’s attempt to quash a federal grand jury subpoena served upon it demanding it identify users. Turns out, now we do know: two days after the post ran the court publicly released its decision refusing to quash the subpoena. It’s a decision that doubles-down on everything wrong with the original district court decision that also refused to quash it, only now with handy-dandy Ninth Circuit precedential weight.

Like the original ruling, it clings to the Supreme Court’s decision in Branzburg v. Hayes, a case where the Supreme Court explored the ability of anyone to resist a grand jury subpoena. But in doing so it manages to ignore other, more recent, Supreme Court precedents that should have led to the opposite result.

Here is the fundamental problem with both the district court and Ninth Circuit decisions: anonymous speakers have the right to speak anonymously. (See, e.g., the post-Branzburg Supreme Court decision McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission). Speech rights also carry forth onto the Internet. (See, e.g., another post-Branzburg Supreme Court decision, Reno v. ACLU). But if the platforms hosting that speech can always be forced to unmask their users via grand jury subpoena, then there is no way for that right to ever meaningfully exist in the context of online speech.

Yet neither of these more recent Supreme Court decisions seems to have had any impact on either the district court or Ninth Circuit’s thinking. Instead both courts seem to feel their hands are tied, that in the 1970s the Supreme Court set forth, once and for all, the rule that no one can ever resist federal grand jury subpoenas, except in very limited circumstances, and that this ruling was the final word on their enforceability, no matter what the context. But as I wrote in the previous post, what the Supreme Court said in Branzburg about the enforceability of grand jury subpoenas only related to those that arose from a specific context, journalists shielding sources, and the only question before the court then was whether journalists, as journalists, had the ability to refuse them. The Supreme Court never considered whether there might be any other set of circumstances where grand jury subpoenas could be resisted. In Branzburg the Supreme Court had only considered the question with respect to journalists.

In fact, to make Branzburg apply to Glassdoor, the Ninth Circuit had to try to squeeze Internet intermediaries like Glassdoor into the shoes of reporters and make them seem like one and the same, even when they are not:

Although Glassdoor is not in the news business, as part of its business model it does gather and publish information from sources it has agreed not to identify. It argues that “[a]nonymity is an essential feature of the Glassdoor community,” and that “if employees cannot speak anonymously, they often will not speak at all,” which will reduce the availability of “information about what it is like to work at a particular job and how workers are paid.” In other words, forcing Glassdoor to comply with the grand jury’s subpoena duces tecum will chill First Amendment-protected activity. This is fundamentally the same argument the Supreme Court rejected in Branzburg.

With all due respect to the Ninth Circuit panel, this is not fundamentally the same argument the Supreme Court rejected in Branzburg. As I wrote last week, to view the role of an intermediary platform as the same thing as an intermediary journalist is to fundamentally misunderstand the role of the intermediary platform in intermediating information. It also fundamentally misunderstands the First Amendment interests at stake. This case isn’t about the press-related First Amendment rights at issue in Branzburg; they are the speech-related First Amendment rights of online speakers. And it’s not the platform’s First Amendment interests that Glassdoor is primarily trying to vindicate; it is the interests of the platform’s users. Yet here, too, the Ninth Circuit panel misunderstands those interests when it dismisses out of hand the idea that they might have any right not to be unmasked:

Furthermore, Branzburg makes it clear that Glassdoor’s users do not have a First Amendment right not to testify before the investigating grand jury about the comments they initially made under the cloak of anticipated anonymity. See id. at 695 (“[I]f the authorities independently identify the informant, neither his own reluctance to testify nor the objection of the newsman would shield him from grand jury inquiry . . . .”). Therefore, Glassdoor cannot refuse to turn over its users’ identifying information on the grounds that it is protecting its users’ underlying rights.

“Anticipated anonymity” is a pretty grotesque way of describing a constitutional right people expected to be protected by when they chose to speak online. And it suggests a misreading of Branzburg, which never considered speech interests that were truly analogous to those of Internet platform users. Even if there’s no First Amendment right to speak anonymously with a reporter it does not follow that there is no First Amendment right to speak anonymously online at all.

But that’s the upshot to this decision: people who wish to speak anonymously online, in any capacity, won’t be able to. They will forever be vulnerable to being unmasked by any federal criminal investigation, just so long as the investigation is not being done in bad faith. Nothing else can provide any sort of check on these unmasking demands, regardless of any other interest in play – including those of innocent speakers simply trying to avail themselves of their First Amendment right to speak anonymously, and all those who benefit from that speech.

This is a pretty stark result, and one that stands to affect Internet speakers everywhere. Not only does it threaten those anywhere a grand jury within the Ninth Circuit will be able to reach, but it will serve as persuasive authority governing the enforceability of subpoenas from grand juries in other circuits. It’s also one that stands to have this dramatic effect after having been whipped up in secret, with a hidden docket and adamant refusal to accept amicus support. (Although two amici are listed in the caption, it does not appear that either brief was ultimately accepted by the court, much less actually read and considered.) Like anyone who insists on going it alone, without the help of their friends, the results of that obstinate independence have been predictably disastrous. Friends don’t let friends inadvertently undermine the First Amendment, and I wish the court had let those of us able to help it see the full implications of this ruling be that friend.

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