Meet John Doe.
The Internet has given voice to millions of people who can now share their ideas and thoughts under cover of a pseudonym or screen name. This protection has been critical to opening up discussions among shareholders, political dissidents, victims of domestic abuse, "whistleblowers," and disgruntled employees. But this same anonymity can also shield the stealers of trade secrets and copyrighted material and prevent the unmasking of libel.
The ability of Internet service providers (ISPs) to unmask anonymous subscribers and users has proven to be a weakness in the protection of freedom of expression on the Internet. Companies angry about comments criticizing them on public message boards, for example, have found that they can simply file a civil lawsuit with vague, unsupported claims, then issue a subpoena to the discussion's host ISP demanding the identity of the speaker. These subpoenas have effectively shut off discussion in many public forums. ISPs have recently begun to notify their subscribers when they receive these subpoenas, giving them at least a limited opportunity to object. Yet still, many subscribers do not respond in time and their identities are turned over with no analysis of whether their speech actually caused any harm.
Recently, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has initiated similar "John Doe" lawsuits, alleging copyright infringement against hundreds of anonymous internet users at a time, and then issuing subpoenas to ISPs to connect names to IP addresses. Although the RIAA presents evidence of copyright infringement by some anonymous defendants in its court filings before it issues subpoenas, the RIAA subpoenas the names of far more defendants solely on the basis of its allegations. As in the case of message board subpoenas, some ISPs notify subscribers before identifying them, giving them a chance to object, but not all ISPs do so. The RIAA has been saving itself court costs by filing a single lawsuit against all alleged infringers who subscribe to the same ISP, regardless of the probable physical location of the alleged infringers; therefore, subscribers who are notified of a subpoena by their ISP and wish to object may be forced to interact with a court on the other side of the country. In short, subpeonas issued in "John Doe" lawsuits are shifting the burden to anonymous internet users to fight for their anonymity.