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. Continue reading »

Nov 062017
 

This post is the second in a series that ran on Techdirt about the harm to online speech through unfettered discovery on platforms that they are then prevented from talking about.

In my last post, I discussed why it is so important for platforms to be able to speak about the discovery demands they receive, seeking to unmask their anonymous users. That candor is crucially important in ensuring that unmasking demands can’t damage the key constitutional right to speak anonymously, without some sort of check against their abuse.

The earlier post rolled together several different types of discovery instruments (subpoenas, warrants, NSLs, etc.) because to a certain extent it doesn’t matter which one is used to unmask an anonymous user. The issue raised by all of them is that if their power to unmask an anonymous user is too unfettered, then it will chill all sorts of legitimate speech. And, as noted in the last post, the ability for a platform receiving an unmasking demand to tell others it has received it is a critical check against unworthy demands seeking to unmask the speakers behind lawful speech.

The details of each type of unmasking instrument do matter, though, because each one has different interests to balance and, accordingly, different rules governing how to balance them. Unfortunately, the rules that have evolved for any particular one are not always adequately protective of the important speech interests any unmasking demand necessarily affects. As is the case for the type of unmasking demand at issue in this post: a federal grand jury subpoena.

Grand jury subpoenas are very powerful discovery instruments, and with good reason: the government needs a powerful weapon to be able to investigate serious crimes. There are also important constitutional reasons for why we equip grand juries with strong investigatory power, because if charges are to be brought against people, it’s important for due process reasons that they have been brought by the grand jury, as opposed to a more arbitrary exercise of government power. Grand juries are, however, largely at the disposal of government prosecutors, and thus a grand jury subpoena essentially functions as a government unmasking demand. The ability to compel information via a grand jury subpoena is therefore not a power we can allow to exist unchecked.

Which brings us to the story of the grand jury subpoena served on Glassdoor, which Paul Levy and Ars Technica wrote about earlier this year. It’s a story that raises three interrelated issues: (1) a poor balancing of the relevant interests, (2) a poor structural model that prevented a better balancing, and (3) a gag that has made it extraordinarily difficult to create a better rule governing how grand jury subpoenas should be balanced against important online speech rights. Continue reading »

Nov 042017
 

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. Continue reading »

Helping Platforms Protect Speech By Avoiding Bogus Subpoenas (cross-post)

 Analysis/commentary, Intermediary liability, Regulating speech  Comments Off on Helping Platforms Protect Speech By Avoiding Bogus Subpoenas (cross-post)
May 262017
 

The following was cross-posted on Techdirt.

We often talk about how protecting online speech requires protecting platforms, like with Section 230 immunity and the safe harbors of the DMCA. But these statutory shields are not the only way law needs to protect platforms in order to make sure the speech they carry is also protected.

Earlier this month, I helped Techdirt’s think tank arm, the Copia Institute, file an amicus brief in support of Yelp in a case called Montagna v. Nunis. Like many platforms, Yelp lets people post content anonymously. Often people are only willing to speak when they can do so without revealing who they are (note how many people participate in the comments here without revealing their real names), which is why the right to speak anonymously has been found to be part and parcel of the First Amendment right of free speech . It’s also why sites like Yelp let users post anonymously, because often that’s the only way they will feel comfortable posting reviews candid enough to be useful to those who depend on sites like Yelp to help them make informed decisions.

But as we also see, people who don’t like the things said about them often try to attack their critics, and one way they do this is by trying to strip these speakers of their anonymity. True, sometimes online speech can cross the line and actually be defamatory, in which case being able to discover the identity of the speaker is important. This case in no way prevents legitimately aggrieved plaintiffs from using subpoenas to discover the identity of those whose unlawful speech has injured them to sue them for relief. Unfortunately, however, it is not just people with legitimate claims who are sending subpoenas; in many instances they are being sent by people objecting to speech that is perfectly legal, and that’s a problem. Unmasking the speakers behind protected speech not only violates their First Amendment rights to speak anonymously but it also chills the speech the First Amendment is designed to foster generally by making the critical anonymity protection that plenty of legal speech depends on suddenly illusory.

There is a lot that can and should be done to close off this vector of attack on free speech. One important measure is to make sure platforms are able to resist the subpoenas they get demanding they turn over whatever identifying information they have. There are practical reasons why they can’t always fight them — for instance, like DMCA takedown notices, they may simply get too many — but it is generally in their interest to try to resist illegitimate subpoenas targeting the protected speech posted anonymously on their platforms so that their users will not be scared away from speaking on their sites.

But when Yelp tried to resist the subpoena connected with this case, the court refused to let them stand in to defend the user’s speech interest. Worse, it sanctioned(!) Yelp for even trying, thus making platforms’ efforts to stand up for their users even more risky and expensive than they already are.

So Yelp appealed, and we filed an amicus brief supporting their effort. Fortunately, earlier this year Glassdoor won an important California State appellate ruling that validated attempts by platforms to quash subpoenas on behalf of their users. That decision discussed why the First Amendment and California State Constitution required platforms to have this ability to quash subpoenas targeting protected speech, and hopefully this particular appeals court will agree with its sister court and make clear that platforms are allowed to fight off subpoenas like this. As we pointed out in our brief, both state and federal law and policy require online speech to be protected, and preventing platforms from resisting subpoenas is out of step with those stated policy goals and constitutional requirements.