Subpoenas To Instagram, Facebook, and Gmail for User Identification

Do the courts have the ability to subpoena user identity information from Instagram?  Can a person file a lawsuit against the operators of an Instagram page for defamation? An advertising executive was fired after being posted about on an Instagram account, Diet Madison Avenue. The account is known for outing sexual harassment and discrimination in the advertising industry.  The fired executive, Ralph Watson, is now suing Diet Madison Avenue, and the people who ran it for defamation.  The lawsuit names “Doe Defendants”for the people who ran the page and currently remain anonymous.

Watson claims that Diet Madison Avenue made false allegations  about him that cost his job.  Several other agencies have fired men whose names appeared on the Instagram account. Since being fired, Watson claims that he is unable to find work.  “Trial by social media” has been used to describe the incidents.  Watson claims that he has never sexually harassed anyone, but says that his career and reputation have been ruined overnight. Watson hopes that the trial will bring the operators of the account into court, where they must present the evidence and defend their claims.

The operators of the account have said that the allegations were independently researched and confirmed before any names were posted on the account.  The specific post in question called Watson an “unrepentant serial predator” who “targeted and groomed women,” among other things.  Watson also filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the advertising firm he worked for by alleging defamation, wrongful termination, and breach of contract.

Watson claims that the advertising firm had no cause to terminate him, and that in doing so, it violated his contract with the firm. Watson’s employment contract mandated a six month salary compensation if he was terminated without cause.  “Cause” was defined to include “serious, specific, and limited grounds,” such as “nonconformance with the company’s standard business practices” and “policies against racial or sexual discrimination or harassment.”  Watson claims that his employer fired him without cause, as “a direct result of Diet Madison Avenue’s false statements, pressure, and interference.”  Watson says that he has had his “life destroyed wholly on the basis of the defendants’ patently false statements.”

Watson was fired days after the post by Diet Madison Avenue.  According to the complaint, the firm had no evidence or grounds on which to fire him “because they had undertaken no investigation and/or only a cursory and biased sham investigation in connection with the Diet Madison Avenue’s wholly unsubstantiated attacks.” Watson says that he was never disciplined for any type of improper behavior by his previous employer, or any employer for whom he had worked for in the past.

Now, Instagram, Facebook, and Gmail have received subpoenas in order to extract identifying information of the individuals who operated the Diet Madison Avenue page. The individuals will be named as defendants in the lawsuit.  Watson is seeking $10 million in punitive damages.  The Instagram page was allegedly run by 17 individuals, with possible assistance from another 42 individuals, according to court documents. Diet Madison Avenue had a following of nearly 20,000 users, but was shut down shortly after the lawsuit.  It has since started posting again with a different Instagram page, and currently has less than 2,000 followers.

Overall, the lawsuit is an interesting legal case showing the willingness to hold anonymous internet users accountable for actions that may cause harm to others.  Instagram will likely comply with the subpoena, as there is not much of an argument for them to make in terms of protecting user anonymity or privacy, since the account was public and the statements on it allegedly caused Watson to lose his job.

At our law firm, we assist clients with legal issues related to data privacy, internet law, technology, and defamation.  Please contact us to set up an initial consultation.