How EFF saved Indymedia from an unconstitutional subpoena for all its visitors' IP addresses

When the US government demanded the IP address of every visitor to Indymedia's website (and ordered Indymedia to keep the request secret), Indymedia called the Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF fought the subpoena — which was grossly unconstitutional — and won. Here's the story of how it happened, and remember, if you ever get a crazy, unconstitutional request from a G-man, stop and call a lawyer or get in touch with EFF.

The government added insult to injury by also inserting this language on the first page of the subpoena: "You are not to disclose the existence of this request unless authorized by the Assistant U.S. Attorney. Any such disclosure would impede the investigation being conducted and thereby interfere with the enforcement of the law."

The problem? The law doesn't require the recipient of a federal grand jury subpoena to keep the subpoena secret (which is why, typically, subpoenas often will "request" — but not require — a recipient's silence). There are certainly secrecy requirements for participants in the grand jury — such as the jurors and the prosecutors — but those requirements do not extend to witnesses (or potential witnesses such as a subpoena recipient). And although the SCA does provide the government with the option of obtaining a court order under 18 U.S.C. § 2705(b) requiring silence when the recipient's disclosure would have an adverse affect on an investigation, the government in this case did not obtain any such gag order.

In sum, without any legal authority to back up their purported gag demand, the government ordered Ms. Clair not to reveal the existence of the subpoena, a subpoena that as already described was patently overbroad and invalid under the SCA. This is exactly the kind of unjustified demand of silence that creates a fog around the government's often-overreaching surveillance activities. How many other subpoena recipients have remained silent over the years in response to such bogus demands, and how many of them violated their users' privacy by handing over data that the government wasn't entitled to? We simply do not know, and because of a lack of meaningful reporting about the government's use of the SCA, we cannot know.

We were determined that our client would not be one of the silenced, and that this illegal subpoena would eventually see the light of day.

From EFF's Secret Files: Anatomy of a Bogus Subpoena