July 01, 2013

Representing the Anonymous Client

A lawsuit over online defamation turns into a case study in how the issue of anonymity applies to social media sites.

Frank F. Sommers

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So, what did you do for your summer vacation? Last year, I spent 10 days of mine fighting one of the largest media companies in Britain on behalf of an anonymous Twitter user whom I have never met but whom I defended against claims of defamation, computer hacking, and impersonation. In the process, I watched as the case became an object of repeated media and blogosphere comments about how the issues of anonymity should apply to social media sites.

If you’ve never represented a party whose anonymity is the key issue in the dispute, it presents some interesting problems, starting with the question: Do you as counsel have to know the identity of the party you’re representing?

It all started at lunch on July 26, 2012, as I was idly running through the BBC feed on my smartphone while waiting for the waiter. An article caught my eye: “Twitter to reveal identity of spoof newspaper boss account.” (BBC News, July 25, 2012). In brief, an anonymous Twitter user had set up an account mocking the chief executive officer (CEO) of a British media company, Northcliffe Media Ltd., and the company had just filed suit in California federal court to have subpoena power over Twitter.

Twitter in turn had notified the account holder that, absent a motion to quash by August 1, it would turn over the requested material. I was caught by the following from the anonymous Tweeter: “What I need at the minute is a very good pro-bono California lawyer. As it stands, they will hand over my details.”

I was hooked, and the appetizer hadn’t even arrived. 

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