“We were totally perplexed,” said Ben Smith, who co-founded Room 8 with Gur Tsabar. (The site calls itself an “imaginary neighbor” to the press room — Room 9 — in City Hall in New York.) The two promptly began looking for a lawyer. “We knew enough to be scared.”
This, of course, is a blogger’s nightmare: enforced silence and the prospect of jail time. The district attorney eventually withdrew the subpoena and lifted the gag requirement after the bloggers threatened to sue. But the fact that the tactic was used at all raised alarm bells for some free speech advocates.
The demand for secrecy raised the unnerving prospect that prosecutors could quietly investigate anyone who posts comments online, while the person making those comments is unaware of and unable to respond to the risk. The tactic also robs bloggers of one of their most powerful weapons: the chance to spread the word and turn the legal attack into an online cause célèbre.
Lawsuits over information posted online are usually civil, not criminal — that is, they are filed by private citizens or companies trying to keep something off the Web. Courts have developed ways to evaluate the claims, often using tests to balance the First Amendment’s protections of speech against the harm caused by whatever someone wrote or said.
Using such an analysis earlier this year, a federal judge in San Francisco reversed an order disabling a Web site that allowed the anonymous posting of documents, after he weighed concerns about the order’s effect on free speech.
In that case, efforts to block access to the Web site, called Wikileaks, ended up attracting far more attention to the documents posted there.
But there are fewer precedents explaining how courts should evaluate criminal subpoenas, according to legal experts. Perhaps that is because prosecutors are more cautious about the risk of violating the First Amendment and so issue fewer criminal subpoenas, or because the subpoenas themselves carry language prohibiting disclosure of their terms.
“In the criminal context it’s trickier because it’s the government asking for stuff, and I think it’s going to be harder to fashion a rule, especially when the government is not exactly willing to part with the reasons” for requesting the information in the first place, said Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor at Harvard.
Without knowing the motives of prosecutors, he continued, judges may be hard-pressed to balance their needs against the importance of free speech.
Bloggers concerned about possible litigation may want to check the privacy policies of their Internet service providers, to see whether they include a pledge to notify any customer whose site is the subject of a subpoena, Mr. Zittrain said.
Armed with that knowledge, a blogger could fight the subpoena in court. Software also exists that is intended to make it difficult to identify those who want to be anonymous online.
Some of the people blogging on the Room 8 site are named, but many choose to be anonymous. Mr. Smith said he called the assistant district attorney in the Bronx who had issued the subpoena to try to find out more about why prosecutors wanted the Internet Protocol, or I.P. address, of the person who blogged under the name Republican Dissident. But the prosecutors would not share any information, he said.
An I.P. address, together with the date and time of an online comment, can help identify the computer used to make that comment.
Mr. Smith said he was not opposed to helping prosecutors in all cases. “Was somebody found face-down on their keyboard and the I.P. address was going to help identify the killer?” he said. “We’re not free speech absolutists here.”