Internet Troll Moves to Quash Subpoena Designed to Uncover their IRL Identity
February 28, 2008 3:04 PM   Subscribe

Two Yale Law School graduates who allege they were subjected to a campaign of online harassment file suit against the site's owner and two dozen internet trolls for copyright infringement, defamation, and a variety of other tort and IP claims. In the latest developments, the website's owner was dropped from the lawsuit, and another defendant moved (seemingly pro se) to quash a subpoena served originally on their ISP to reveal their identity. posted by Law Talkin' Guy (25 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by rtha at 3:08 PM on February 28, 2008

The only interesting thing that happened the last time we talked about this AutoAdmit bullshit was when Ann Althouse showed up to defend herself with a (long-dormant) account she'd had for years.
posted by dersins at 3:12 PM on February 28, 2008

If you go to a barbershop, you just might get a haircut.
posted by MarshallPoe at 3:32 PM on February 28, 2008

I've always been conflicted over AutoAdmit. On the one hand, they're undeniable sleezeballs, and threats of rape accompanied by photos, addresses, and other ID are neither laughing matters nor worthy of protection. On the other hand, anonymity is important.

I think, ultimately, the legitimate concerns raised by rape threats, death threats, and the relentless campaign of the AutoAdmit thugs to bully women from behind their shield of anonymity trumps the importance of anonymity.

However, while I do think it is legitimate to strip AutoAdmit's thugs of their anonymity, it is not a decision to be undertaken lightly, and in the future such legally forced revealing should be reserved exclusively for similarly extreme cases.

That said, I think any requests for ID on anonymous posters coming out of repressive political regimes must be denied regardless of what the regime *claims* the crimes of the anonymous person are. We must work on the assumption that, for example, the PRC will do anything to get the ID of political dissidents, including falsely claim that the disidents are distributing child porn, plotting terror, etc. The only ethical answer that can be given to oppressive regimes is a flat refusal to provide any identifying information of any sort.
posted by sotonohito at 3:48 PM on February 28, 2008

The only interesting thing that happened the last time we talked about this AutoAdmit bullshit was when Ann Althouse showed up to defend herself with a (long-dormant) account she'd had for years.

Well that's interesting. And she's right. She didn't criticize Valenti for 'having breasts', she criticized her for not adequately hiding up her breasts while meeting with bill Clinton. This is the picture she was complaining about. A quick googling brings up this summary of the whole affair.

What's interesting is how neatly Althouse's denial of the obvious combined moralizing condemnation of anyone who would disagrees with her so neatly parallels Hillary Clinton's style of argumentation.
posted by delmoi at 4:23 PM on February 28, 2008

Hahaha, from the wikipedia article:
On August 25, 2006, two weeks after Republican U.S. Senator George Allen used the term "macaca" to describe S.R. Sidarth, a 20-year old Jim Webb campaign volunteer, conservative blogger Dan Riehl accused Sidarth of making racially insensitive and homophobic posts on the AutoAdmit message board,[14] including posts where Sidarth allegedly admitted to having sex with a transvestite while high on methamphetamine.[15]. Although several blog commenters informed Riehl that the S.R. Sidarth poster on AutoAdmit was an impersonator, and while Sidarth himself denied ever posting on AutoAdmit, Riehl refused to retract his story, arguing that Sidarth's denial "cannot be verified without an IP check, which I imagine would violate privacy restrictions." [16]

On August 28, 2006, after the owner of the S.R. Sidarth moniker on AutoAdmit changed his moniker and explained to Riehl that he was not actually S.R. Sidarth, Riehl threatened AutoAdmit's administrators with a lawsuit and alluded to pursuing felony criminal charges against the site.[17] These threats were mocked by AutoAdmit users,[18] and inspired a parody thread where users documented testimony from the fictitious Riehl v. Xoxohth trial.[19] As of December 9, 2007, no actual civil lawsuit or criminal proceedings have been initiated.
Why are conservative bloggers so insane?

Anyway, the impression I get is that AutoAdmit is essentially a 4chan for law students. Not that one is actually derivative of the other, but that they both serve the same desire for totally anonymous boards full of fellow assholes.
posted by delmoi at 4:30 PM on February 28, 2008

Yalies are why we can't have nice things.
posted by oaf at 4:38 PM on February 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

The fact that I know about the Jessica Valenti breast controversy is reason enough to nuke the eastern seaboard of the United States to a glassy black sheen.
posted by Pastabagel at 4:55 PM on February 28, 2008

Also, reading through these links, it's becoming painfully obvious how creatively crippled most lawyers and law students are. Wow, the nicknames on AutoAdmit were "pauliewalnuts" an the "ayatolla of rock and rollah"? Couldn't think of other TV shows to rip off besides the Sporanos and the simpsons? And how about writing fake posts about Sidarth being gay and having sex with a transvestite. Wow, gay jokes? Really? You're the next John Grisham! There's more clever crap being said in Halo3 by 9-yr olds.

The Althouse blog has links to her flickr account. Where among other things, she posts pictures of herself buying shoes. I can only assume she's trying to kill me with banality, so I have no choice but to sue her.
posted by Pastabagel at 5:07 PM on February 28, 2008

I have no choice but to sue her.

God bless America.
posted by oaf at 5:13 PM on February 28, 2008

I don't know where "the ayatollah of rock and rollah" originated but it wasn't the simpsons. I first heard it in Mad Max 2 but I'm sure that's not the origin.

Anyway, I don't even remember it being in the simpsons at all. I think it's a reference to Chris Jericho, the wrestler.
posted by puke & cry at 5:17 PM on February 28, 2008

From a legal perspective, this is an absolutely fascinating case. First, it tests the outer limits of the "minimum contacts" doctrine concerning personal jurisdiction. That is to say, for someone to be sued in a given district, they need to have had some form of sufficient contact with that district. This is (one of the reasons) why someone who lives in Nevada can't file a frivolous lawsuit against someone they've never met in Georgia and then try to win by default based on the inconvenience involved in someone from Georgia defending themselves in a state thousands of miles away. Personal jurisdiction might also come into play if, hypothetically, a national corporation sued one of its former employees who lived and worked on the East Coast by filing suit in a state on the West Coast just to make things more onerous for the employee.

In this case, the defendants are presumably everyday people all over the country. It's a safe bet that the great majority of them don't live in or near Connecticut, haven't traveled to Connecticut, don't do business in Connecticut, don't own property in Connecticut, and have never chosen to avail themselves of goods, services, or other benefits in Connecticut. All they did was post to an internet forum. Their conduct allegedly had an adverse impact on Connecticut residents, but it just as easily could have been Hawaii, or Alaska, or Puerto Rico. If the District of Connecticut can assert personal jurisdiction over these defendants simply by virtue of their posts on an internet message board not associated with any particular state, then the very boundaries of personal jurisdiction, which have been applied for a very long time in American law, are virtually erased when it comes to the internet. I think there's a serious question about whether or not that's a fair result, since now potential defendants can be haled into court anywhere in the country without ever having advance warning about where their conduct online might subject them to personal jurisdiction.

Second, this case may also revolutionize our ideas of adequate process. By that I mean, the touchstone of American notions of due process are 1) notice, and 2) a meaningful opportunity to be heard. Without these things, it's more or less impossible to successfully bring any judicial action, civil or criminal, against anyone. Usually notice takes the form of a set of papers that include the complaint filed by the plaintiff being personally given to the defendant(s) along with an explanation of what's at stake in the lawsuit. Here, the "notice" consisted of a post to the AutoAdmit forums "ATTENTION [SCREEN NAMES OF THE DEFENDANTS], YOU ARE BEING SUED IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF CONNECTICUT" and some other information. The problem here is obvious. Suppose one or more of these defendants decided to "quit" AutoAdmit before this post was made. What notice would they have of this lawsuit? Basically none. And in light of that, how could they possibly have a meaningful opportunity to be heard?

Third, if the court in Connecticut resolves the libel claims the way courts sometimes do and issues an order that the defamatory statements at issue be retracted or taken off the public record, what happens to search engines and web archives that independently host these statements? Do they need to be brought into the lawsuit as defendants? If so, Google will find itself a defendant in every defamation lawsuit associated with statements on the internet, an expensive prospect even for them. Or, could Google just be served with an order to remove the cached pages after the case concludes? Well if so, what happened to their due process-- their notice and opportunity to be heard?

Fourth, and this is probably the weirdest aspect of the case, how do you successfully prosecute an action against "AK47" or "azn azn azn?" At some point, and that point looks like now in this case, the plaintiffs need to obtain information about the real identities of the defendants so any judgment they get can be enforced. But again, this brings ISP's into the lawsuit who have some obligation to protect their customers' privacy. Moreover, note the strange posture of the case. We have two "Doe" plaintiffs subpoenaing information to reveal the identities of several "Doe" defendants. What happens if they succeed? Will the plaintiffs also lose the ability to proceed anonymously? If not, it hardly seems fair that the defendants' identities will become public record, but not the plaintiffs'.
posted by Law Talkin' Guy at 5:23 PM on February 28, 2008 [8 favorites]

From a legal perspective, this is an absolutely fascinating case.

This is why sites like autoadmit exist. Because every point you discussed is tediously uninteresting. But you are entirely correct that from a legal perspective they are fascinating. The underlying problem imo is that there are people who go to law school for three years and come out thinking this type of stuff is neat.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 7:57 PM on February 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, Law Talkin' Guy stole everything I was going to say.
posted by goatdog at 8:22 PM on February 28, 2008

[Insert own Q: here]
A: A good start.
posted by not_on_display at 9:03 PM on February 28, 2008

I've worked for lawyers. It's all bullshit.
posted by wv kay in ga at 9:22 PM on February 28, 2008

I've learned two strategies for dealing with trolls. I'd love to add lawsuits to the mix. I wish the Jane Does all the luck in the world.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:42 PM on February 28, 2008

I guess I have been lucky to escape knowing about this somehow, but the Ann Althouse comments on Jessica Valenti is pretty much one of the stupidest things I've ever read. And the AutoAdmit case is pretty gag-inducing too. Just reading the explanations of the common acronyms on AA made me want to slap the admins silly.
posted by gemmy at 9:47 PM on February 28, 2008

Of course we follow the law, not morals.

well, that pretty much sums it up right there, doesn't it?
posted by pyramid termite at 10:11 PM on February 28, 2008

No offense, LTG, but you sound like someone in the middle of CivPro. I don't think the Personal Jurisdiction issues are particularly interesting here, although the question of PJ over the internet can be a fascinating one. This seems fairly open-and-shut in many instances (although perhaps not against AK47 given what he's accused of writing).

CDA 230 immunity forces plaintiffs to go after defendants when the website refuses to remove defamatory content. When the same website refuses to log IPs or require authentication in any form, then it's pretty much a slam dunk for the defamers as there is no way to get to the posters. What's interesting about this case is the last part of AK47's brief, where he states that Anthony Ciolli turned over his IP address. Apparently, AutoAdmit was logging IPs all along. The question of how victims of severe online harassment can get any form of justice when websites refuse to moderate their content or log their uses is a tough one. What's stunning is that they got this guy's IP addess in the first place.

This, to me, is the only interesting question about AutoAdmit. Is society better off for having an unmoderated website (which appears in google searches etc) that does not track its users in any identifiable way? Is the harm that befalls some people, in this case two women who were incredibly harassed for their appearances and the outright gall of going to a good school, greater than the harm that comes from restricting this speech? If so, how do we restrict this speech? Do we require all website operaters to act as newspaper editors and either remove content or be held liable for libel/slander? Do we require everyone to track IPs so plaintiffs can go after posters? What about tor? I don't think there are easy answers to this question. The personal jurisdiction stuff is a little boring in comparison.
posted by allen.spaulding at 11:23 PM on February 28, 2008

Where among other things, she posts pictures of herself buying shoes. I can only assume she's trying to kill me with banality

OTOH, the videos she's made of herself gargling wine are almost entertaining.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:57 AM on February 29, 2008

Too bad the motion to quash will be denied... he filed in the wrong court. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45(c)(3) allows for motions to quash only before the court that issued the subpoena in the first place - here, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Unless he refiles his motion in C.D.Cal., the subpoena will remain in full effect.
posted by dilettanti at 8:16 AM on February 29, 2008

And by "too bad", I mean, this "development" will have no effect on the case, and no court will address AK47's purported "First Amendment right to make speak [sic] anonymously." Moreover, the issue with the subpoena, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with notions of adequate process. Given that AK47 has personally responded to a subpoena issued to a third party, there is no question of notice - he has actual notice of the claims against him.

The broader issue implicated in this case is whether plaintiffs may avail themselves of discovery devices to identify the unknown defendants so that they can give proper notice/process/etc. and bring them into court. What I find interesting is the supposed higher evidentiary standard Doe 21 claims should be applied to such discovery requests aimed at identifying "Doe" defendants in defamation and related suits. Essentially, he claims that the plaintiffs should bear the burden of showing that the statement is actionable (defamatory, intrusive, etc.) before the identity of the defendant may be demanded from a third party. I find it interesting because it basically puts the statement itself "on trial" before allowing the plaintiff to put the author on trial. I don't mean to defend what AK47 said on AutoAdmit - a jury could well find AK47 liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress on the basis of that one statement alone, and his argument that it could have pertained to any "Jill" in the land is clearly nonsense (nobody has or could have any doubt to whom he was referring). But his First Amendment argument, as poorly written as it is, is somewhat interesting - and it will go unaddressed in response to this motion, because the Connecticut court doesn't have the power to quash a subpoena issued by the California court.
posted by dilettanti at 9:17 AM on February 29, 2008

Just an update. Anthony Ciolli has sued the two plaintiffs in the original suit and their counsel. You can read the complaint here:

Again, I have to wonder how people connect names to supposedly anonymous aliases.
posted by allen.spaulding at 12:13 PM on March 5, 2008

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