Early last year, a group of filmmakers obtained a subpoena, requesting Reddit to reveal the identities of users who commented on piracy-related topics.
The movie companies said they were not planning to go after these people in court but wanted to use their comments as evidence in an ongoing piracy lawsuit against Internet provider RCN.
Reddit wasn’t willing to go along with the request. Instead, the company objected, arguing that handing over the requested information would violate their users’ right to anonymous speech.
Reddit I, II and III
A California federal court eventually agreed with this defense, concluding that Redditors’ First Amendment rights outweigh the interests of rightsholders. According to Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler, the filmmakers have other options to obtain this type of information, including through RCN itself.
A few weeks after this setback, the rightsholders filed another request, seeking similar information for use in their lawsuit against ISP Grande. This second attempt wasn’t successful either, and Redditors’ right to anonymous speech prevailed once again.
Attorney Kerry Culpepper, who represented different line-ups of filmmakers in these cases, wasn’t prepared to give up on this route to evidence quite so easily. Earlier this month he was back in court with a similar, but tweaked, request. This time it relates to a lawsuit targeting Internet provider Frontier Communications.
IP addresses & Anonymity
In general terms, this case is comparable to the others. The film companies, Voltage Holdings and Screen Media Ventures, want to use comments made by six Redditors to show that the ISP didn’t take proper action against repeat infringers, or that ‘lax’ enforcement acted as a draw to potential pirates.
Reddit, again, refused to hand over information, arguing it would violate their users’ right to anonymous speech. This prompted the filmmakers to return to court for a third time.
In their latest motion to compel, the rightsholders introduce a new angle. They are no longer looking for any names or email addresses, only the applicable IP address logs. This would allow the commenters to remain anonymous, they argue.
“Reddit asserts that the information Movants request is not permissible under the First Amendment. However, Movants’ subpoena does not request anonymous users’ identities. Rather, the subpoena is limited to requesting the Reddit users’ IP address logs,” they write.
Reddit Opposes in Court
In a response to the motion this week, Reddit counters that disclosing IP addresses would still violate users’ rights to anonymous speech, adding that no court has ever ruled otherwise.
According to Reddit, users’ IP addresses would be useless as evidence if they didn’t identify the targets in any shape of form.
“First, and most obviously, Movants’ subpoena exclusively seeks the IP addresses of the targeted Reddit users. Were IP addresses not identifying information, they would hold no evidentiary value to Movants whatsoever and the subpoena would be pointless.”
Secondly, since Reddit doesn’t require users to verify their identities, IP addresses are sensitive information. They can be used to obtain the targets’ personal information, for example, by serving a subpoena on their Internet provider.
“Movants know, the process of unmasking a Reddit user turns on Reddit’s disclosure of an IP address because Reddit does not require its users to provide their real names or addresses. For that reason, provision of an IP address is unmasking subject to First Amendment scrutiny.
“After learning an IP address, the Movants need only subpoena the ISP for the subscriber information associated with that IP address, and the ISP does not share Reddit’s interest in protecting the anonymity of that user,” Reddit adds.
Other Options Preferred
In their motion, the filmmakers haven’t explained what value the IP addresses offer in addition to the anonymous comments that are already publicly available. According to Reddit, there are other and ‘less invasive’ options for the filmmakers to get what they want.
The film companies already have IP addresses of pirating Frontier subscribers, Reddit argues. These can be used to obtain the identities of account holders, so they can be questioned for evidence.
The rightsholders previously noted that Frontier is not willing to share the identities of users, but Reddit points out that this is an outdated stance from the ISP which has since changed.
“Here, Movants again admit that they already have ‘pirating [IP] addresses’. And, as described above, Frontier has already indicated that it will provide Movants with identifying information for those IP addresses upon receipt of a subpoena,” Reddit’s opposition reads.
If allegedly pirating subscribers can be targeted directly, Reddit believes that putting the anonymity of its users at risk by exposing their IP addresses is unnecessary.
The filmmakers further argued that, unlike the ISPs’ ‘pirating IP addresses’, the Reddit comments specifically serve as evidence that lack of enforcement against repeat infringers served as a draw to potential Frontier customers.
Once again, Reddit doesn’t believe that disclosing the IP addresses of its users adds anything to the publicly available comments.
“[T]o the extent Movants are suggesting that the Reddit posts themselves are ‘documented evidence,’ Movants need not unmask the Reddit users to admit that documented evidence; Movants could lay the evidentiary foundation for, and authenticate, those posts themselves,” Reddit writes.
The response from Reddit shows that once again, it will be for the court to decide whether the company has to hand over any information. That will happen after the matter is discussed at a hearing in a few weeks.
In addition to the main question, there’s also a request pending from film companies Killing Link Distribution, Family of the Year Productions, and Laundry Films, who want to join the rightsholder’s motion.
A copy of Reddit’s opposition to the motion to compel, filed at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, is available here (pdf)