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 Chilling Effects Clearinghouse > John Doe Anonymity > Frequently Asked Questions Printer-friendly version

Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers) about John Doe Anonymity

  • Q: What is a subpoena (also spelled "subpena")?
  • Q: How is Internet anonymity affected by John Doe lawsuits?
  • Q: Why is anonymous speech important?
  • Q: Is anonymous speech a right?
  • Q: How do CyberSLAPP plaintiffs discover the identity of anonymous Internet critics?
  • Q: Don't judges review subpoenas before they are sent to ISPs?
  • Q: Isn't my ISP required by law to tell me if someone asks for my Internet-usage records and identity?
  • Q: What is a "motion to quash" a subpoena?
  • Q: What should I do if I receive notice that my ISP has received a subpoena for my data?
  • Q: How much time would I have to try to fight a subpoena?
  • Q: What are the typical claims behind a CyberSLAPP suit?
  • Q: How do judges decide whether to let a subpoena go forward?
  • Q: What are some of the important cases in this area of law?
  • Q: Can I do anything to help change this situation?
  • Q: What other resources are available?
  • Q: Can someone ask for my identity even if I am not the Defendant in the case?
  • Q: I am in California. Do I have a right to both resist such a subpena and to ask a court to throw out the case, right away, and award me attorneys fees?
  • Q: What are the key federal decisions involving anonymous speech?
  • Q: Aren
  • Q: I signed a confidentiality/privacy agreement with my ISP that provides that they will not release my information. Doesn
  • Q: I don
  • Q: What does "respond" to the subpena mean?
  • Q: Can an ISP or the host of the message board or chat room be held liable for defamatory of libelous statements made by others on the message board?
  • Q: Can my ISP or the host of a message board be held liable for defamatory statements I make on the grounds that they are a "publisher" or "republisher" of the information?
  • Q: Must an ISP or message board host delete postings that someone tells him/her are defamatory? Can the ISP or message board delete postings in response to a request from a third party?
  • Q: Where can I find more information about the RIAA's "John Doe" lawsuits?
  • Q: My ISP tells me it's been asked to turn over my name as part of a lawsuit against hundreds of "John Does" in a faraway state. What can I do?
  • Q: I use file sharing software. What can I do to make sure I'm not sued by the RIAA?

    Question: What is a subpoena (also spelled "subpena")?

    Answer: A subpoena is a formal demand that a person or company produce evidence in or for a civil or criminal lawsuit. A subpoena duces tecum (the kind most commonly used in John Doe cases) requires only the production of identified documents or categories of documents.

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    Question: How is Internet anonymity affected by John Doe lawsuits?

    Answer: Often called "CyberSLAPP" suits, these lawsuits typically involve a person who has posted anonymous criticisms of a corporation or public figure on the Internet. The target of the criticism then files a lawsuit so they can issue a subpoena to the Web site or Internet Service Provider (ISP) involved and thereby discover the identity of their anonymous critic. The concern is that this discovery of their identity will intimidate or silence online speakers even though they were engaging in protected expression under the First Amendment.

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    Question: Why is anonymous speech important?

    Answer: There are a wide variety of reasons why people choose to speak anonymously. Many use anonymity to make criticisms that are difficult to state openly - to their boss, for example, or the principal of their children's school. The Internet has become a place where persons who might otherwise be stigmatized or embarrassed can gather and share information and support - victims of violence, cancer patients, AIDS sufferers, child abuse and spousal abuse survivors, for example. They use newsgroups, Web sites, chat rooms, message boards, and other services to share sensitive and personal information anonymously without fear of embarassment or harm. Some police departments run phone services that allow anonymous reporting of crimes; it is only a matter of time before such services are available on the Internet. Anonymity also allows "whistleblowers" reporting on government or company abuses to bring important safety issues to light without fear of stigma or retaliation. And human rights workers and citizens of repressive regimes around the world who want to share information or just tell their stories frequently depend on staying anonymous – sometimes for their very lives.

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    Question: Is anonymous speech a right?

    Answer: Yes. Anonymous speech is presumptively protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Anonymous pamphleteering played an important role for the Founding Fathers, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, whose Federalist Papers were first published anonymously.

    And the Supreme Court has consistently backed up that tradition. The key U.S. Supreme Court case is McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission. http://www.eff.org/Legal/Cases/mcintyre_v_ohio.decision

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    Question: How do CyberSLAPP plaintiffs discover the identity of anonymous Internet critics?

    Answer: CyberSLAPP plaintiffs usually get the personal information you gave an ISP or online message board when you signed up (name, address, telephone number, etc.). Some web sites that host discussion boards might only have your e-mail address, in which case a second subpoeana to the ISP that hosts that address will reveal your identity. In many cases, even more detailed information about your use of the Internet can be obtained; it's important to realize that when you go online, you leave electronic footprints almost everywhere you go. (With advanced knowledge of the Internet, however, there are ways to cover your tracks.)

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    Question: Don't judges review subpoenas before they are sent to ISPs?

    Answer: No. The issuing of civil subpoenas is not monitored by the court handling the case. Under the normal rules of discovery in civil lawsuits, parties to a suit can simply send a subpoena to anyone they believe has information that could be useful. That information doesn't even have to be relevant to the lawsuit, as long as it could possibly lead to the discovery of relevant information. The only way that a court will evaluate an identity-seeking subpena is if either the ISP or the target of the subpoena files a motion asking the judge to block the subpoena. Unfortunately, in practice that rarely happens. That is because these subpoenas usually have a short, roughly 7-day deadline, and because many people never even find out that their Internet data has been subpoenaed.

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    Question: Isn't my ISP required by law to tell me if someone asks for my Internet-usage records and identity?

    Answer: Unfortunately, in practice CyberSLAPP subpenas are rarely challenged becaue ISPs often fail to notify the individual who's personal information is sought. Even when they do, the short deadline (often as little as 7 days) does not provide enough time for the speaker to find and hire an attorney and the attorney to prepare the Constitutional arguments necessary to defend against the subpena.

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    Question: What is a "motion to quash" a subpoena?

    Answer: This is a formal request for a court to rule that your information should not be given to the requesting party. This normally includes the request, plus a legal brief (sometimes called a memorandum of points and authorities) explaining why, by law, your information should not be turned over. Samples of briefs filed in John Doe cases are available at:

    EFF Archive, Cullens v. Doe, http://www.eff.org/Privacy/Anonymity/Cullens_v_Doe/
    http://www.citizen.org/litigation/briefs/IntFreeSpch/articles.cfm?ID=5801

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    Question: What should I do if I receive notice that my ISP has received a subpoena for my data?

    Answer: First you should decide whether you wish to fight to protect your identity, Internet usage records, or whatever else is being sought. You might want to ask your ISP for a copy of the subpoena if they haven't already provided one. If you decide to fight it, you should inform the ISP immediately, and you may want to request that they delay compliance to give you time to find a lawyer. Then find a lawyer, who will file a motion to have the subpoena thrown out. (If your lawyer can later prove that the lawsuit was frivolous, you may be able to recover legal fees if your state has passed an anti-SLAPP statute.)

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    Question: How much time would I have to try to fight a subpoena?

    Answer: The ISP's deadline for complying with a subpoena can vary depending on the judge, the jurisdiction where the case was filed, and other factors. A typical deadline is 7 days. This isn't much time, so again you may want to request an extension of the deadline from the ISP and the court so your lawyer can prepare your challenge to the subpoena.

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    Question: What are the typical claims behind a CyberSLAPP suit?

    Answer: The most common complaints by CyberSLAPP plaintiffs are defamation, trademark or copyright infringement, and breach of contract. Speech that involves a public figure - such as a corporation - is only defamatory if it is false and said with "actual malice." It also must be factual rather than an expression of opinion. In the US, because of our strong free speech protections, it is almost impossible to prove defamation against a public figure. Trademark and copyright complaints typically claim that defendants have violated intellectual property rights by using the name of a corporation or its products, or by quoting from some of their copyrighted materials such as an annual report. In reality, the First Amendment includes a clear right to criticize and discuss corporations and their products, and the law includes clear exceptions for the "fair use" of protected material for those purposes. Breach of contract suits often involve a claim that anonymous speakers might be employees who have violated a contract by releasing confidential information. Of course, the right to anonymous speech is meaningless if a corporation can unmask your identity at will because you might be an employee breaking a promise of confidentiality.

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    Question: How do judges decide whether to let a subpoena go forward?

    Answer: This is a very new area of the law, and there are few well-established principles. The courts do have a duty to balance the right of anonymity against the need to prevent true defamation. So far there have been both good and bad rulings from judges; fortunately several have ruled that the plaintiff must prove that his case has at least a theoretical chance of prevailing before anonymity can be stripped away. Other cases have established a set of key factors to be used in judging anonymity-stripping subpoenas. In most of these the key factors are 1) that the party seeking the subpoena provide evidence that the identity is needed; 2) that the identity is directly needed for a key element in the case; 3) and that the identity information is not otherwise available to the party seeking it. While not yet firmly entranched in the law, these common-sense principles are clearly the right way to ensure that First Amendment rights are protected while still allowing identity to be revealed when there is a genuine need to do so.

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    Question: What are some of the important cases in this area of law?

    Answer: Important CyberSLAPP cases include Dendrite v. Does, http://www.citizen.org/documents/dendriteappeal.pdf,
    Melvin v. Doe, http://legal.web.aol.com/decisions/dlpriv/melvinop.html,
    Doe v 2TheMart.com, http://www.eff.org/Cases/2TheMart_case/20010427_2themart_order.html,
    Global Telemedia International v. Doe, http://www.casp.net/busted.html. Additional information about these and other cases can be found by searching the Internet or looking on the Web sites listed below.

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    Question: Can I do anything to help change this situation?

    Answer: You can do several things. Be educated about your rights. Find out your ISP's policy on the handling of subpoenas, and encourage them - and any Web sites you frequent - to adopt good policies, especially a pledge to notify you of any subpoena before any private information is disclosed. Encourage your state legislators to pass legislation requiring such notice, and press them to amend state anti-SLAPP statutes to explicitly include Internet anonymity cases.

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    Question: What other resources are available?

    Answer: Web sites dealing with this issue include:

    www.aclu.org,
    www.citizen.org,
    www.eff.org,
    www.epic.org,
    www.johndoes.org,
    www.casp.net,
    www.cybersecuritieslaw.com,
    cyber.findlaw.com/expression/censorship.html

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    Question: Can someone ask for my identity even if I am not the Defendant in the case?

    Answer: Yes. The rules of civil discovery allow a party to a lawsuit (the plaintiff or defendant) to ask anyone for any information that may lead to the discovery of relevant evidence to their case. However, your ability to quash such a request if you are not named as a party to the lawsuit is the same as if you are named. You can still file a motion to quash. Below is a link to the case files for such a case:

    http://www.eff.org/Cases/2TheMart_case/

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    Question: I am in California. Do I have a right to both resist such a subpena and to ask a court to throw out the case, right away, and award me attorneys fees?

    Answer: Yes. California has a specific statute, called the anti-SLAPP statute, that allows an early motion to be brought to have a case dismissed if it is aimed at silencing protected expression and participation in matters of public concern.

    Code of Civil Procedure

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    Question: What are the key federal decisions involving anonymous speech?

    Answer: 1. Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation (1999) 525 U.S. 182, 197-200;

    2. McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995) 514 U.S. 334. In that case, on page 357, the Supreme Court said:

    "[A]n author is generally free to decide whether or not to disclose his or her true identity. The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one

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    Question: Aren

    Answer: Not with the initial request. The reasons for the subpena are only provided if the subpena is challenged, through a motion to quash. In opposing the motion to quash, the person seeking the information must demonstrate, at a minimum, that it is likely to lead to the discovery of information that would be useful in a lawsuit.

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    Question: I signed a confidentiality/privacy agreement with my ISP that provides that they will not release my information. Doesn

    Answer: No. Most privacy agreements state that information will be turned over in response to legal requests, and a subpena is such a request. Even if the agreement does not say so, a legally issued subpoena overrides such agreements as a matter of public policy. Each ISP has a different policy about notifying users when their information has been subpoenaed, but they cannot simply ignore a subpoena under the law without risking legal santion themselves.

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    Question: I don

    Answer: Any information that your ISP has may be subject to a subpoena, including information you may keep in calendars, preferences, "myXXX" systems hosted by your ISP, as well as log files. Different ISPs keep different kinds of records of customer behavior. Ask your ISP to be certain that you know what information they maintain about you.

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    Question: What does "respond" to the subpena mean?

    Answer: Usually, it means that the ISP will give the requested information to the requesting person. In some cases, ISPs have resisted requests for information on behalf of their customers, but this is not the norm. Unless specifically told differently by your ISP, you should assume that your ISP will turn over your information as part of its response.

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    Question: Can an ISP or the host of the message board or chat room be held liable for defamatory of libelous statements made by others on the message board?

    Answer: No. Under 47 U.S.C. sec. 230(c)(1): "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." This provision has been uniformly interpreted by the Courts to provide complete protection
    against defamation or libel claims made against an ISP, message board or chat room where the statements are made by third parties. Note that this immunity does not extend to claims made under intellectual property laws.

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    Question: Can my ISP or the host of a message board be held liable for defamatory statements I make on the grounds that they are a "publisher" or "republisher" of the information?

    Answer: No. Federal law provides: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." This has been interpreted to protect hosts of discussions between other people against defamation and libel claims as a "republisher" of the information. Note that this protection does not extend to claims under intellectual property laws.

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    Question: Must an ISP or message board host delete postings that someone tells him/her are defamatory? Can the ISP or message board delete postings in response to a request from a third party?

    Answer: 47 U.S.C. sec. 230 gives most ISPs and message board hosts the discretion to keep postings or delete them, whichever they prefer, in response to claims by others that a posting is defamatory or libelous. Most ISPs and message board hosts also post terms of service that give them the right to delete or not delete messages as they see fit and such terms have generally been held to be enforceable under law.

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    Question: Where can I find more information about the RIAA's "John Doe" lawsuits?

    Answer: The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) maintains an archive of papers and court filings at http://www.eff.org/IP/P2P/riaa-v-thepeople.php.

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    Question: My ISP tells me it's been asked to turn over my name as part of a lawsuit against hundreds of "John Does" in a faraway state. What can I do?

    Answer: You should probably contact a lawyer, and suggest that the lawyer take a look at arguments raised by the EFF, ACLU, and Public Citizen in one of these suits (e.g., http://www.eff.org/IP/P2P/RIAA_v_ThePeople/JohnDoe/20040202_UMG_Amicus_Memo.pdf)

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    Question: I use file sharing software. What can I do to make sure I'm not sued by the RIAA?

    Answer: The best way to protect yourself against an RIAA lawsuit is to avoid copyright infringement. First, ensure that you are not engaging in copyright infringement by removing any files from your shared directory that you do not have permission to distribute. Second, change any potentially misleading file names that might be confused with the name of an RIAA artist or song (e.g., "Madonna"). For a more detailed explanation of this process and other ideas to avoid being treated like a criminal, visit the EFF's page on the subject at http://www.eff.org/IP/P2P/howto-notgetsued.php.

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