Google Faces Subpoena in ‘Shitty Media Men’ Case

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – A male author who says he was defamed in an anonymous online spreadsheet nicknamed the “Shitty Media Men” list plans to subpoena Google for information on the women who contributed to it, potentially setting the stage for a messy, prolonged #MeToo legal battle.

In October 2017, Stephen Elliott’s name appeared on the list, started by writer Moira Donegan and circulated privately as a crowdsourced document naming men in the media industry who have been accused of sexual misconduct.

It’s unclear who actually typed the accusations against Elliott or whether Donegan had anything to do with his file specifically beyond creating and sharing the initial list.

The document was leaked not long after its inception and Donegan, who came out publicly as its creator, maintains it was never supposed to be published. Elliott first sued Donegan last October and filed an amended complaint on March 22 for defamation and emotional distress. He seeks $1.5 million in damages. 

The parties appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sanket J. Bulsara in Brooklyn on Friday afternoon for a 45-minute discovery hearing and initial conference, where they mostly discussed the Google issue. They have agreed on the scope of the proposed subpoena, which seeks attribution information for the list’s contributors.

At a hearing in January, U.S. District Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall said the parties should expect “some limited discovery” in the case.

Back in 2017, unknown contributors wrote next to Elliott’s name on the spreadsheet: “Rape accusations, sexual harassment [sic], coercion, unsolicited invitations to his apartment, a dude who snuck into Binders???” In the “notes” column of the list, Elliott was classified as a man against whom “multiple women allege misconduct.” It is these contributors Elliott seeks to find and potentially sue.  

For its part, Google has repeatedly said, including on Friday, that it will not comply with such a subpoena. In a January letter, the company also said any enforcement proceedings would have to take place in the Northern District of California, near its main headquarters in Mountain View.

“There will, be, I suspect, substantial litigation surrounding [the subpoena],” Donegan’s attorney Joshua Matz said in court Friday.

The subpoena rider calls for the tech giant to turn over “any and all identifying information for individuals who entered information to, and/or contributed, edited, input, highlighted or otherwise manipulated entries, words, data and/or information pertaining to the cells, rows and columns attributed to Stephen Elliott. Identifying information shall include, but not be limited to, email address and/or Gmail account name, IP address, IP address history, name, handle, alias and address of said individuals.”

Once it receives the subpoena, Judge Bulsara suggested Friday that Google’s first act should be to notify the contributing account holders it had been served. The company should also explain that the account holders could defend themselves by moving to quash the summons, a process during which they could likely remain anonymous, Bulsara said.

Anonymity is important during these initial phases, said Bulsara, first for privacy concerns but also because of the chance of inaccurate attribution — if multiple people share a Google account, for example, but only one contributed to the list.

Matz and one of Elliott’s lawyers, Nick Lewis of Nesenoff & Milternberg LLP, both said they would be open to this arrangement. Lewis, however, wondered what would happen if an identified Jane Doe on a shared account denied adding to the list.

“Well, I think we have to then cross that bridge,” Bulsara said. He reminded the parties that further action ultimately depends on what exactly Google hands over.

If a woman asserted her right to challenge the subpoena, he continued, those proceedings could take place in a different court as well.  

Lewis said the scope of the subpoena limits it to identifying the people who “manipulated the cells” on the spreadsheet, but did not want to be precluded from the possibility of also attempting to identify those who merely circulated the list to others.

The list went public on Reddit after BuzzFeed published an article mentioning its existence, and Donegan came out as the creator in an essay for The Cut website. She has not disclosed her age, but appears to be in her 20s.  

Elliott, 47, claims the list has damaged his personal life and career. Donegan intends to file a motion to dismiss his complaint.

Bulsara on Friday also brought up the option of a settlement, by which neither party seemed enthralled. Matz, who is arguing the case in of-counsel capacity for the firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink, called a settlement “most unlikely.”

Bulsara ordered the parties to file a motion in two weeks about putting the rest of the discovery process on hold until the Google issue is resolved.

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