What do Reddit, free speech, and the Jehovah’s Witness religion have in common? A lawsuit regarding the right to remain anonymous online. Last week, a federal court ruled that a Redditor does not have to reveal his identity in a copyright case.
In the case, a Reddit was subpoenaed by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the supervising body and publisher for Jehovah’s Witness organizations, for the identity of a user named Darkspilver. A lifelong Jehovah’s Witness, Darkspilver had shared an advertisement from a Watchtower magazine asking for donations and a chart detailing the personal data the organization stores. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society didn’t take that kindly and filed a suit claiming Darkspilver’s posts infringed Watch Tower’s copyrights. Meanwhile, Darkspilver claimed his post fell under fair use as it was meant to spark discussion and he didn’t claim to own the advertisement in any way.
There are a few eye-catching aspects of the case. According to the court filing, Darkspilver is an active participant in a former Jehovah’s Witness subreddit as he “believes that it is the only place he has been able to discuss and debate matters related to the Jehovah’s Witnesses freely and openly” and that he chose Reddit because he could post anonymously as “keeping his name and identity private is necessary for him to feel comfortable participating in open discussions about religious teachings and practice. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to digital privacy and free speech that represented Darkspilver, and noted attempts to reveal his identity could lead to being shunned from his community.
Where it gets interesting is Darkspilver is not a U.S. resident—so Watchtower argued free speech protections, and thereby Darkspilver’s right to anonymity did not apply. However, the court ultimately disagreed with that logic, reasoning the subpoena was issued by a U.S. court, on behalf of a U.S. company (Watchtower), and delivered to another U.S. company (Reddit). The court also stated that the First Amendment “protects the audience as well as the speaker,” and since a good portion of Redditors reside in the U.S., then free speech protections do apply.
That’s huge. The internet is borderless and plenty of U.S.-based sites like Reddit, Yelp, Google, and Facebook have users scattered across the globe. These sites depend on users feeling comfortable to state opinions, as well as leave candid reviews for services. In cases like Darkspilver’s, anonymity is one factor that makes people feel safe enough to speak out against practices they have issues with.
That said, this case wasn’t a total victory for free speech and anonymity advocates. The court’s final decision still ordered Reddit to deliver Darkspilver’s identifying information to Watch Tower’s lawyers so they could try to shore up its copyright claim. While the court stipulated that Watch Tower’s attorneys were forbidden from revealing his identity to their client, it does highlight the overall conundrum of how to let parties prove they may have a legitimate grievance while still protecting individual anonymity.
Take for instance this 2016 defamation case involving a negative Yelp review. In that case, for the plaintiff to properly prove he was defamed, he argued he needed to know for sure the identity of who was accusing him. In that instance, the court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor, though it didn’t necessarily set a precedent that could be applied willy nilly to all sites everywhere.
It’s fair to wonder, however, if the high burden of proof in a defamation case might mean companies might resort to “easier” methods of revealing a person’s identity for legal recourse. Even though the court found the copyright claim “tipped sharply in Darkspilver’s favor,” it still decided on a half-way compromise.
“Even a far-fetched theory regarding a particular fair use factor, like the one posited here, might be enough to justify disclosure even if the rest of the fair use analysis clearly suggests the use was lawful,” the EFF wrote in a statement. “We are considering next steps. But in the meantime we are also celebrating a crucial win for the First Amendment and access to anonymous speech for internet users everywhere.”