IP Addresses and Protecting Commenters

Our own Annalee Newitz recently posted about Gawker Media’s policy of not storing IP addresses, in response to the subpoena issued to Reason last week. Since I spend a lot of time with Gawker’s data and a little bit of time with Gawker’s lawyers, I obviously have thoughts about all this (as always, I’m not a lawyer and I don’t speak for Gawker).

- These types of subpoenas (based on threatening messages) are going to continue for a long time, thanks to the weak decision the Supreme Court just handed down in Elonis vs United States. Both the subpoena and Elonis center on Title 18 Section 875. Here’s the key paragraph:

(c) Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injure the person of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.


The court basically said that internet comments can meet this standard. I don’t think it’s an accident that this ruling was issued June 1, and the subpoena was served June 2.

- Reason hasn’t said whether they have the data or not, or how they’re going to respond. I don’t know anything but I bet they have the info.

The main reason you’d keep IP address data on commenters is for anti-spam purposes: if someone wants to advertise in your comments, you might flag or disable their account. But that person will probably just create another account and start posting again.


Restricting IP addresses once they are known to produce spam makes it harder (not impossible, but harder) to do this. Now the spammer has to change their IP address in order to keep posting ads.

Reason’s comment section is notably spam-free. Their comments also use ‘nofollow’ tags for any user links, another way to dis-incentivize spam, so they clearly have pursued solutions. Plus, this is the company that once personalized issues by printing pictures of each subscribers’ homes on the cover of the magazine, so they’re data savvy. I’d be surprised if they don’t have the data.

- We do everything we can to protect the identity of our commenters and our sources. So if you have something to say and want to post it here or let us know, just make sure you follow these steps.


- That said, please don’t threaten to kidnap or injure people in the comments. Or otherwise!

And This Is Why Gizmodo Doesn't Collect IP Address Data

Over at Bloomberg, Virginia Postrel writes about a grand jury subpoena issued to unmask the identities of anonymous commenters at libertarian publication Reason. Specifically, they want IP addresses, which can reveal a person’s geographical location and more.

You can read the whole subpoena here, but this is the key bit:


Basically, the court wants any information they can get on these anonymous commenters, who were expressing anger over Silk Road mastermind Ross Ulbricht’s sentencing. Most of the court’s requests could turn up garbage, if these commenters acted like the libertarians they are and refused to give their real names or hand over bank information. But it’s harder to mask your IP address — especially if Reason (like many companies with customers) has been tracking and storing IP addresses.

Reason doesn’t have to track IP addresses, and let’s hope they didn’t. Here at Gizmodo — indeed, at all the sites owned by Gawker Media — it’s our policy not to log your IP address when you visit our sites or make a comment. As long as you use a burner account, nobody will ever know who you are or where you come from. If you log in with Google or Facebook ... we still don’t have your data, but we can’t control what those companies do with it.

But what I can say with certainty is that if we received this subpoena tomorrow, demanding that we hand over personally-identifying information about you because you went into comments and spilled some corporate secrets about Apple — well, we couldn’t. Our technical systems team couldn’t. We don’t log that data, period. And we chose to set up our commenting system that way because we want to protect your right to speak freely and anonymously.


Postrel describes the comments that people made on Reason that inspired the subpoena. They are all aimed at the judge in the Silk Road case:

They were furious and, in their fury, some of them got nasty. “Its judges like these that should be taken out back and shot,” wrote Agammamon. “Why waste ammunition? Wood chippers get the message across clearly. Especially if you feed them in feet first,” responded croaker. “I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman,” commented Rhywun. “I’d prefer a hellish place on Earth be reserved for her as well,” chimed in ProductPlacement. (Reason has since removed the offending comments.)

No one in their right mind would take this hyperbolic venting seriously as threatening Judge Forrest, who back in the fall had personal information published on an underground site, along with talk of stealing her identity or calling in tips to send SWAT teams to her house. The Reason commenters, by contrast, included nothing so specific.


And now these commenters’ real identities are going to be revealed in court.

Maybe you think what they said was ugly and horrific, or maybe you think they were just venting. Either way, do they deserve to have their real names revealed — and be subjected to possible legal prosecution — for being idiots in the comments on Reason? That’s up for debate. And no matter what you say about that debate in the comments, we’ll keep your identity anonymous.

[via Bloomberg]

Photo by Spencer Platt via Getty

Contact the author at annalee@gizmodo.com.
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