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Have You Received a Subpoena to Reveal Your Identity Online?

A subpoena can be issued when anonymous online activity is involved in a lawsuit, as a way to force internet service providers or companies like Google, Yelp, Yahoo, WordPress, or Twitter, to turn over an IP address, name, address, content, user history, or other personally identifying information, and reveal a user’s identity. The information sought by the subpoena is usually described somewhere on the document or on an attachment.

Subpoenas to Internet service providers and websites that provide reviews or discussion forums are commonly related to a lawsuit for defamation, libel, or copyright violations. The party issuing the subpoena is most likely seeking the information to name the user as a defendant or a witness in a lawsuit.

How to Fight a Subpoena

Users whose information has been subpoenaed may have the right to file a motion with the court to quash the subpoena. Time is of the essence, so users should consult an attorney as soon as they learn of the subpoena to determine the best course of action.

A note of caution: users who prefer to remain anonymous should not contact the lawyer who issued the subpoena (even though their contact information is provided on the subpoena), as doing so would reveal the sought-after personally identifying information the user is trying to protect.


    Why did I receive a subpoena?
    There are two major reasons why the person behind a subpoena may want to know who you are and how to contact you:

    (1) The party issuing the subpoena is seeking your personal information so that you can be named as a defendant in the suit and be served with a summons and complaint, i.e., sue you (worst case scenario). Or,

    (2) the party issuing the subpoena believes you may be able to either provide testimony and/or produce documents or electronically stored information relevant to the lawsuit.

    By looking at the subpoena itself, you may be able to learn enough information to figure out which of these two situations applies to you.

    Who is behind the subpoena?

    Usually both a plaintiff (the party who sues) and defendant (the party being sued) are identified on the subpoena. However, sometimes there are too many parties to list and you may not be able to identify all parties from the subpoena itself. If the plaintiff is a company or individual about whom you have recently written a negative review on Yelp or Yahoo or or another website, and the lawyer issuing the subpoena represents the plaintiff, chances are that the plaintiff is trying to sue you. This is especially likely if the defendant is listed on the subpoena as “Does 1-10” or something similar — a Doe is an unnamed defendant on a complaint that the plaintiff can later amend to add the Doe’s real name once it becomes known.

    However, just because you do not recognize the plaintiff’s name, or there is already a defendant or defendants not named “Doe,” does not mean you are not being sued. It’s possible the plaintiff has sued many people by name already, and is seeking to add you as an additional defendant.

    Can I fight the subpoena?

    Yes, fortunately, you do have rights in this situation. However, you need to move quickly to take advantage of those rights.

    Just because a subpoena was issued by a court or a lawyer does not mean it should have been issued, or that it was issued properly or should be complied with. You may have the right to file what is called a “motion to quash” the subpoena in court. If the court grants that motion, then the subpoena is void and your information will remain undisclosed.

    What is a motion to quash?
    There are a variety of legal objections you may be able to raise to quash the subpoena. For example, California law provides that any subpoena issued by a California court regarding an out-of-state lawsuit that arises from an exercise of First Amendment rights – e.g., participating in an online discussion about an issue of public interest – is subject to a motion to quash, unless the plaintiff can show the lawsuit has merit. The subpoena may also seek information that is not relevant to the lawsuit, in which case it may also be quashed. There are also a number of other grounds for filing a motion to quash.
    What should I do first?

    You should contact an attorney immediately upon receiving a subpoena.

    You will note that the subpoena gives you the name and contact information for the lawyer who issued the subpoena. If your goal is to remain anonymous, DO NOT CONTACT THIS LAWYER OR ANYONE ELSE IN THE LAWYER’S OFFICE. If you do, you will have given away your identity. However, do make a note of which party the lawyer issuing the subpoena represents.

    How much time do I have to respond?
    The time varies. However, Internet service providers and other companies that receive subpoenas will often tell you by what date they need a response from you or they will respond to the subpoenaing party.

    What if the motion to quash is denied?

    The information being subpoenaed will most likely be disclosed.

Where can I learn more?

CASP – C.C.P. Sections 1987.1 and 1987.2 Quashing Subpoenas

EFF – Frequently Asked Questions for Subpoena Targets

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The information on this website is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. The information here is meant to provide general information to the public.

Site last updated May 5, 2017 @ 2:50 pm; This content last updated February 28, 2016 @ 1:21 pm