Thursday, May 31, 2007

Early Withdrawal: AG Greg Abbott rethinks motion to out anonymous blog commenters

Good news: Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is standing down, for now, on the demand that Google turn over information that could help Bexar County probation director Bill Fitzgerald identify anonymous dissidents on his staff who want to start a labor union. Here's a copy of the withdrawal motion (pdf) filed late this afternoon.

After I wrote earlier this week about the AG's motion to reveal identities of commenters on a probation officers' employee blog, the story was picked up by Elizabeth Allen at the SA Express News' Hearsay blog. I then forwarded this Grits post to Abbott and a couple of members of his staff, and was pleased to receive an email reply and a phone call in response from a high-level staffer, though one who ironically himself would rather remain anonymous.

After reading about the situation on Grits, my source says folks higher up the food chain in the AG's office decided that this "wasn't what we wanted to do." "We're not trying to mess with you guys," my source declared on background. In fact, he said the Texas AG had never before filed a motion seeking IP addresses of blog commenters, even in criminal sex predator cases, and that the AG certainly didn't want to set this precedent in a civil matter.

That said, the AG's withdrawal motion says the defendant "reserves the right to reissue the subpoena" later, so those private reservations expressed in anonymity won't necessarily restrain future legal action. But the act of withdrawing the motion in the first place counts for something.

I've never heard of this before and am still curious as to whether and when Google releases such information or whether they fight it in court. Are anonymous comments really anonymous? Maybe not ultimately - anonymous blogging and commenting could be one of those rights we lose rather than protect in the courts if we don't pay close attention and defend it.


Anonymous said...

This is just hilarious! There is a constitutional right to freedom of speech!

Or did someone forget to tell me that we now reside in Cuba?

billt said...

I was always under the impression that NOTHING we do on the web is completely anonymous. We each have a unique IP address assigned to our computer so technically, everything we do, every site we visit, etc. etc. is traceable. Is that right? Maybe someone who is more technically astute than me can explain it better. But I think the AG's actions are a boost to freedom of speech.

Anonymous said...

Despite all the money spent to ensure our privacy, the fact is that we have no privacy in this day and age.

Tell the truth, don't make anyone mad enough to sue you and never break the law. Then you may have some privacy just because no one cares about you and what you say.

Welcome to the twenty first century.

tttt said...

I think the big boss was broadsided and put a stop to it. I might be wrong but it sounds reasonable. Good job Grits. Hopefully, the politicos will come here first for the facts. :)

Anonymous said...

Heck Yeah! Thanks Grits for your help! Also thanks to the higher ups in the AG's office. As for the Judges who protect Bill Fitzgerald -2008.

Grits your wonderful!!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Elizabeth Allen also.

Anonymous said...

I just hit your PayPal button on behalf of anonymous commenting and encourage everyone else to do the same! Thanks Grits!

Anonymous said...

To Scott Henson & Grits,
A Great Big Thanks!!! You are the best watchdog ever. To the person that just hit the paypal button, ditto. Elizabeth Allen,Thank you!! This soap opera won't end here and there seems to be no PEACE in site. A.G. Office I know that you have better things to do than to represent such a vengeful person like Fitzgerald. B.C. Judges stop hidding behind your ROBES and DO SOMETHING about this problem!!

Anonymous said...

Here is an interesting article on EXCEPTIONS to the First Amendment

Anonymous said...

Way to go grits!! This is the King blog! I see a new wave of justice starting to blossom!

Anonymous said...

grits you should now be aware that our support staff is being threaten by the admin that over sees them. the threat is that should they join the union they will be fired - THIS IS VERY ILLEAGAL - MAYBE THIS PERSON SHOULD HAVE A LAWSUITE FILED ON HER.

for a chief whom states he supprots unions why would this person threaten her staff like that.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Scott Henson & Grits for looking out for the people's rights. Bexar Co. Probation is a rogue organization in need of serious oversight. Since the Bexar Co judges are unwilling to reign in the chief, it's up to organizations like Grits, organized labor, and the free press to provide the check and balance on this out of control organization. Dallas Co PO's and the United Steelworkers are coming to San Antonio tomorrow night to meet and discuss the future of Bexar Co Probation employees. Unfortunately, the responsibility of changing the department will fall upon the shoulders of the employees. Are you up for the challenge? We experienced the same scenario in Dallas Co., overcame the odds, and are better off for it. I look forward to meeting all Bexar Co Probation employees tomorrow night. To the support staff, don't be fooled by another phony scare tactic. It's time to stand up for yourselves and send the schoolyard bullies into retirement. See you tomorrow. Kurt Kuehl, USWA 9487, Dallas Co PO's

Anonymous said...

With respect to tracking: Google can indeed read the "IP Address" of any visitor to the site. The IP address is assigned by your internet service provider (for example, RoadRunner , if you post from your home, or your agency's ISP, if you post from work). So Google *can* trace it back to your ISP, but not necessarily back to *you* personally. Identifying *you* personally might require yet another subpoena to your particular ISP. Now, if you do set up a Google account to post, Google can track you more precisely.

In the various lawsuits involving copyright infringement, tort, and governmental requests for search records, the various online entities have earned different reputations for their quick, or not-so-quick, compliance. Some give up the info right away, and some take a stand to safeguard privacy.

Google's (owner of & privacy policy states that Google will comply with any legal process (like complying with subpoenas). The privacy policy certainly applies to the registered author (ie, Grits himself). It's less clear how well it applies to an occasional commenter...but I wouldn't rely on Google to take a stand for the end-user. Don't count on Google to vindicate your rights to anonymous expression.

If I were a poster who wished to remain anonymous, I would use a "surf proxy." This is a website that acts as an intermediary between your ISP and your target website. A surf proxy will replace your own IP address with its own. Better yet, surf from a wireless access point at your local Starbucks.


Anonymous said...

This site might be able to help those employees, to continue to be anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Good job Grits! If I remember correctly Greg Abbot threatened felony voter fraud charges against anyone who transported nursing home residents that there were not related to to vote in 2006. This was voter suppression plain and simple. I dont see Greb Abbott as any friend of the Constitution or freedom of speech. It looks to me like he backed away from his motion to avoid the heat,not because he was doing an upstanding job and protecting our civil rights. Remember, it was his office that filed the motion to obtain the identities in the first place.

Unknown said...

Yes, we have a right to free speech - but if you want to be heard: that costs big money. Money and credentials are the only criteria for "legitimacy". You get these only after shutting up when those with credentials and money deliberately lie to the public.

Anonymous said...

Yes i agree with JT BARRIE and that is why we need to join the steel workers. they can help us financially.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to all who have come to the defense of the officers/staff of Bexar County.
First: Officers who hired attorney and filed lawsuit
Second: Attorney David VanOs
Third: Officers who are signing cards for USW-Union.
Fourth: United Steel Workers
Fifth: Dallas County POPS
Sixth: Scot Henson / GRITS
Seventh: Bexar-Me.blogspot
Eigth: Express-News / Local Television
SORRY if I forgot anyone else.
Old as Moses

Anonymous said...

Good call last post but I would have put grits higher!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Grits - we will never forget!