Email Privacy Sidebar in Chevron Pollution Fight
(CN) - Chevron can access only a slice of the email information it wants for an upcoming trial to invalidate a $19 billion judgment it faces for pollution in the Ecuadorean Amazon, a federal judge ruled.
In 2011, a court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, awarded billions to the rainforest residents there based on two-decade-old claims that Chevron's predecessor Texaco wreaked havoc on their rainforest homes and public health. Chevron has decried the ruling on three continents as a product of corruption in the Ecuador's scandal-beset judiciary.
As the rainforest residents struggle to collect their award in Canada, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina, Chevron has been racing to void the award through international arbitration in Europe and a federal lawsuit in New York City.
Meanwhile, a federal judge in California awarded Chevron some of the information that it wants to use for Manhattan trial slated to start on Oct. 15 this year.
Even though the ruling is a mixed bag for the oil giant, digital privacy advocates warn that the ruling could implicate anonymous speech and journalism in the Internet Age.
Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), represented 32 clients whose email addresses Chevron coveted. He said in an interview that the EFF successfully quashed the subpoenas against all but six.
In these cases, Chevron can access only identity information associated with the accounts, which the oil giant claims to know already, Cardoza said.
"It's not a complete victory, but it's close," the lawyer said.
He expressed concerns nevertheless about the potential precedent of the ruling, which he said he intends to contest with a motion for consideration and, if necessary, an appeal.
"The judge seems to recognize that anonymous speech is a right that the Supreme Court has held does exist," Cardozo said. "People do have the right to anonymous speech online, but he says that it's not implicated here."
Indeed, U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Cousins draws a distinction in his 34-page ruling between online speech and an online user's email and IP addresses, which the judge says case law does not protect.
"The Doe movants cite no case that analogizes IP addresses and logs or email addresses to protected speech," the ruling states.
Cardozo said that this reasoning "doesn't make sense to us."
"Just because you turn over your name to Yahoo or Google when you sign up to the service doesn't mean that anyone can just subpoena that provider for your identity," he added.
In the ruling, Judge Cousins said that the users fighting Chevron's subpoenas negated their privacy interests by volunteering to turn over their information to Google and Yahoo, whose terms of service state they will comply with subpoenas.
"If that's true, you could never quash any type of subpoena directed at Google and Yahoo," Cardozo said. "What that term of service means is that they will turn over information pursuant to a valid subpoena."
Each of the parties has until Sept. 5 to object to the California judge's ruling.
Chevron has not returned a request for comment.