A subpoena is a document commanding someone to appear or produce evidence in connection with a legal action. One form of subpoena asks service providers to disclose personally identifiable information about users based on their actions on a website. Subpoenas may be issued by attorneys representing one of the parties to a case, and they may contain demands that are excessive in some cases. However, unless effectively blocked through a prompt challenge, some objections to a subpoena may be waived and may not be asserted in court.
Why is someone seeking to discover my identifying information?
Generally, a subpoena seeking to unmask the identity of an anonymous speaker is served on a third-party website during the discovery (or evidence-gathering) phase of a lawsuit. The plaintiff usually wants to identify the party that, according to the plaintiff’s claims, allegedly caused harm to the plaintiff. The alleged harm could arise from an online posting of some sort, such as an article or talk page contribution, that, for example, the plaintiff claims is defamatory or a violation of copyright. A plaintiff can identify a user based on their Internet Protocol (IP) address or registered email address by sharing this information with an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Once they know a user’s real-world identity, that user may be sued or prosecuted in connection with the alleged harm.
If you do not take the necessary legal steps, then the Wikimedia Foundation may be compelled to turn over your personally identifiable information or other requested information. Once the requesting party knows your identity, it is possible, for example, that you could be named in a lawsuit.
What can I do to fight the subpoena?
Because of the complexities of the legal arguments and procedural requirements, as well as the difficulty of remaining anonymous when filing a motion by yourself, it is highly recommended that you consult immediately with a lawyer, especially before seeking to defend against a subpoena. The rules and procedures to fight a subpoena will depend on the jurisdiction where the subpoena was issued.
In some jurisdictions you may be able to send the plaintiffs written objections. In other jurisdictions, your only option may be to file a motion to quash with the court (asking the court to invalidate the subpoena). In either case, to protect your personally identifiable and other information from being released, it is essential that you take the necessary actions before certain deadlines.
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