Reddit doesn't have to identify eight anonymous users who wrote comments in piracy-related threads, a judge in the US District Court for the Northern District of California ruled on Friday. US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler quashed a subpoena issued by film studios in an order that agrees with Reddit that the First Amendment protects the users' right to speak anonymously online.
The First Amendment right to anonymous speech is not absolute, but the precedent followed by US district courts only forces disclosure of anonymous users' identities "in the exceptional case where the compelling need for the discovery sought outweighs the First Amendment rights of the anonymous speaker," Beeler noted. After reviewing the facts and arguments, she found that the Reddit users' comments were irrelevant to the film studios' underlying case and that the studios could obtain relevant information from other sources.
Reddit has no involvement in the underlying case, which is a copyright lawsuit in a different federal court against cable Internet service provider RCN. Bodyguard Productions, Millennium Media, and other film companies sued RCN in the US District Court in New Jersey over RCN customers' alleged downloads of 34 movies such as Hellboy, Rambo: Last Blood, Tesla, and The Hitman's Bodyguard.
In an attempt to prove that RCN (now known as Astound Broadband) turned a blind eye to customers illegally downloading copyrighted movies, the studios subpoenaed Reddit seeking identifying information for specific users who commented in piracy-related threads. While some of the comments were posted in 2022, other comments were made in 2009 and 2014.
Reddit sought to protect user privacy
The studios filed a motion to compel Reddit to respond to the subpoena after Reddit refused to identify eight of the nine users. As Reddit pointed out in a filing that accused the studios of spewing "nonsense," some of the commenters didn't even mention RCN, and others merely "discuss[ed] issues (such as their customer service experience) unrelated to copyright infringement or Plaintiffs' allegations."
The plaintiffs, attempting to prove that RCN "ignores piracy on its network" and is thus liable for its users' copyright infringement, "subpoenaed non-party Reddit for identifying information for eight Reddit users' accounts and then moved to compel Reddit's compliance after Reddit objected," Beeler wrote.
"The users at issue posted comments over the years that, according to the plaintiffs, support the plaintiffs' claims," the ruling continued. "Reddit contends that there is no need for the discovery that outweighs the users' First Amendment right to speak anonymously online. The court denies the motion to compel and quashes the subpoena because on this record, the First Amendment bars the discovery."
As Reddit previously argued, "Courts have long recognized that the First Amendment protects online anonymity and have established a stringent standard to use in precisely this scenario, where a litigant seeks to unmask users for the purpose of providing evidence in litigation that does not involve those users... Plaintiffs are far from meeting that strict standard here."
The film studios claimed that "Reddit has not identified any potential harm to these users by disclosing the information" and said they had no intention of "seeking to retaliate economically or officially against these subscribers. Rather, Plaintiffs just wish to discuss the comments the subscribers made and use their comments as evidence that RCN monitors and controls the conduct of its subscribers, RCN has no meaningful policy for terminating repeat infringers, and this lax or no policy was a draw for using RCN's service."