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.