22 July 2013
For a few years now, we've been following a rather troubling legal fight between people in Ecuador and Chevron – the oil giant that has been in a long-term legal battle with people in Ecuador over some of its actions in that country. A few years ago, we wrote about how Chevron was ordering a documentary filmmaker to turn over cut footage, claiming that it might exonerate the company (the filmmaker tried to hold it back, claiming it was protected under journalist shield rules). However, last fall, we noted something perhaps even more troubling. Chevron had issued subpoenas seeking various email info from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft going back years. As we noted at the time, they weren't seeking the content of the email, but the were seeking what many more people are now familiar with as "metadata." But, metadata can be quite revealing.
When we wrote about this case a year ago, it was under the context of one person, Kevin Heller, whose data was sought, and him successfully fighting back (with some help from the ACLU) getting Chevron to drop the request for his info. But, as for everyone else's info? Mother Jones alerts us to the news that a judge in NY recently said it was okay for Chevron to get all that metadata, in some cases going back nine years.
...a federal court granted Chevron access to nine years of email metadata—which includes names, time stamps, and detailed location data and login info, but not content—belonging to activists, lawyers, and journalists who criticized the company for drilling in Ecuador and leaving behind a trail of toxic sludge and leaky pipelines. Since 1993, when the litigation began, Chevron has lost multiple appeals and has been ordered to pay plaintiffs from native communities about $19 billion to cover the cost of environmental damage. Chevron alleges that it is the victim of a mass extortion conspiracy, which is why the company is asking Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, which owns Hotmail, to cough up the email data. When Lewis Kaplan, a federal judge in New York, granted the Microsoft subpoena last month, he ruled it didn't violate the First Amendment because Americans weren't among the people targeted.
Leaving aside the fact that the court thinks it's okay to do this even if it's just "non-Americans" who have their privacy violated here, Mother Jones points out that this claim that it only targeted non-Americans isn't, in fact, true. Pesky details.
Now Mother Jones has learned that the targeted accounts do include Americans—a revelation that calls the validity of the subpoena into question. The First Amendment protects the right to speak anonymously, and in cases involving Americans, courts have often quashed subpoenas seeking to discover the identities and locations of anonymous internet users. Earlier this year, a different federal judge quashed Chevron's attempts to seize documents from Amazon Watch, one of the company's most vocal critics. That judge said the subpoena was a violation of the group's First Amendment rights. In this case, though, that same protection has not been extended to activists, journalists, and lawyers' email metadata.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) represents 40 of the targeted users—some of whom are members of the legal teams who represented the plaintiffs—and Nate Cardozo, an attorney for EFF, says that of the three targeted Hotmail users, at least one is American. Cardozo says that of the Yahoo and Gmail users, "many" are American.
This seems like a pretty big problem, given the rationale of the judge initially. Beyond that, just the basic chilling effects from finding out that a giant company could get access like this to so much metadata on a large list of its critics is fairly incredible. As the article notes, while subpoenas on people who aren't actually parties to a lawsuit are "routine," they're not supposed to be mass fishing expeditions, which they appear to be in this case.
And, of course, even the whole "well they're not Americans so the First Amendment doesn't apply" thing is highly questionable – since many of the accounts are anonymous internet users, and the First Amendment does protect online anonymity and there's no way for Chevron or the judge to know if the anonymous users are Americans or not.