Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's attempt to subpoena information from Google could end up unmasking Web users who have made anonymous posts to Google.
That's according to the ACLU, which this week asked the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold an order blocking Hood from enforcing the subpoena.
"Among its numerous demands, the subpoena calls for the disclosure of individual Internet postings on Google services, as well as related identifying information including personal email addresses and Internet Protocol (“IP”) addresses," the ACLU argues in a friend-of-the-court brief filed this week. "Enforcement of the subpoena would therefore infringe the First Amendment right to speak anonymously online by identifying innumerable Internet speakers."
The ACLU is among the organizations opposing Hood's request that the 5th Circuit allow him to resume an investigation of Google.
In March, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate in Jacksonville issued an injunction blocking Hood from attempting to enforce a subpoena seeking "millions" of documents from Google.
Wingate said in his ruling that Google's decisions about what to publish online were constitutionally protected, and that Hood's attempt to interfere with that judgment by threatening legal action “would likely produce a chilling effect on Google’s protected speech.”
The judge also said Hood can't target Google for linking to sites that allegedly infringe copyright, because state attorneys general lack jurisdiction over copyright infringement.
Much of the material that Hood requested from Google centers on information relating to copyright infringement by third parties -- including companies that Google indexes in its search engine as well as users who have uploaded material to YouTube.
But Hood also requested information from Google about posts by users that he deems objectionable. The subpoena included a demand for information about posts that "could, in any way, either directly, indirectly or tangentially, aid, abet, assist, facilitate, encourage or promote activity that could lead to physical harm or injury," the ACLU writes.
The civil rights group says that request is so broad that it captures a host of protected speech.
"A few examples suffice to demonstrate the absurdity and scope of the subpoena’s demands," the ACLU writes. "Discussing political activism or organizing a protest, as the “#BlackLivesMatter” movement does online, could inadvertently lead to physical harm or injury, including anything from an accidental fall to excessive force by arresting officers," the ACLU argues. "Discussion of the use of firearms on Google+ would also fall within the subpoena’s ambit, as would YouTube videos planning or promoting Fourth of July fireworks displays, or anything depicting an individual playing a sport."
The ACLU adds that Hood doesn't offer any justification "for eviscerating" people's free speech rights.
"By directly unmasking content providers and those who use Google services to access information, the subpoena will also significantly deter others who use the Internet anonymously," the ACLU says. "The subpoena should therefore not be enforced."