EFF Backs California Senate Bill Protecting Anonymous Speech Online

San Francisco and Berkeley, CA - Your employer just laid off 300 of your colleagues without notice and without severance pay. So you go online and post an angry, anonymous comment about it on a Yahoo! message board. Although you could lose your job if your boss discovered what you’ve said, you feel safe because nobody who reads the comment knows who you are. Plus, your right to engage in anonymous free speech is protected under the First Amendment, right? Wrong.

In California, it is currently legal for anyone to subpoena personal information from your Internet Service Provider (ISP) without any court oversight – and without notifying you. That means you have no chance to protect your anonymity or secure legal representation before the person requesting the subpoena figures out who you are and takes action against you. Your boss could read that anonymous comment, subpoena your ISP to get your name, and fire you the next day.

Over the past few years, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and other organizations have defended dozens of individuals whose identities have been sought after they criticized corporations or other people online. Nearly all of the cases are dropped once opposition begins, indicating that the lawsuits are aimed at silencing criticism and identifying critics, rather than addressing legitimate legal claims.

To remedy this problem, California Assembly Member Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) is sponsoring Assembly Bill 1143, the Internet Communications Protection Act (ICPA). The bill protects anonymous speakers on the Internet by requiring service providers to notify them before handing over personal information that’s been subpoenaed. This information could include addresses, phone numbers, and any other private details a person provided to enable him or her to get Internet connectivity. Once a user is notified and given the basic information about the claims, he or she is given a window of time to respond and thus gain the opportunity to secure legal representation to contest the validity of the subpoena and protect personal information.

AB 1433 is backed by EFF, which is represented by the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley’s School of Law. It also has the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Anti-SLAPP project and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Cindy Cohn, Legal Director of EFF, said, “This act ensures that you have a reasonable opportunity to protect your own privacy. It levels the playing field by giving you the time and information you need to defend yourself if the claim against you is invalid, while preserving the right of those who have legitimate claims to find out who has harmed them.” Assemblyman Simitian added, “Internet users deserve to have their privacy and their anonymity protected. And they deserve due process in defending themselves against frivolous lawsuits.”

In addition, ICPA eases the burden placed on service providers by allowing them to bill subpoenaing parties for the costs of notifying users about their subpoenas. It also allows people to subpoena information without notification in emergency cases.

The hearing for the bill is tentatively set for June 15. Cohn and other supporters will be lobbying for it in Sacramento on June 9.

EFF Action Alert: http://action.eff.org/action/index.asp?step=2&ampitem=2914


Cindy Cohn
Legal Director
Electronic Frontier Foundation
+1 415 436-9333 x108 (office), +1 415 307-2148 (cell)

Deirdre Mulligan
Samuelson Law, Technology &amp Public Policy Clinic
+1 510 642-0499

About EFF

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is the leading civil liberties organization working to protect rights in the digital world. Founded in 1990, EFF actively encourages and challenges industry and government to support free expression and privacy online. EFF is a member-supported organization and maintains one of the most linked-to websites in the world at http://www.eff.org/

About Samuelson Law Clinic

The Samuelson Law, Technology &amp Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Boalt Hall), represents individuals and non-profits on privacy, copyright and First Amendment issues relating to the Internet and other advanced technology. More information about the Samuelson Clinic can be found online at http://samuelsonclinic.org.

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