Activist groups fight subpoenas for data from more than 100 e-mail accounts

Lilly Chapa | Reporter's Privilege | News | October 23, 2012

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and EarthRights International have filed motions to quash subpoenas issued by Chevron Corp. to three e-mail providers for the data and location information of more than 100 email accounts over the span of nearly a decade.

The subpoenas, which were issued in federal courts to Google and Yahoo in San Franciso and Microsoft in New York City at the beginning of October, represent Chevron’s latest attempt in an ongoing legal battle to prove that an Ecuadorian judge falsified information in an $18 billion lawsuit against the oil giant.

The judge ruled last year that Chevron should pay to clean up a portion of the Amazon rainforest that Texaco, bought by Chevron in 2001, used for oil drilling. In response, Chevron sued more than 50 people involved in the lawsuit, alleging that the court had been rigged so that the company would have to pay.

Chevron lawyers claim that the plaintiffs used email accounts to falsify evidence and blackmail judges, which is why they claim to need the transactional information from anyone who emailed Ecuadorian lawyers during the trial.

According to an EFF press release, many of the subpoenaed email accounts belong to people who are not involved with the case but had emailed the Ecuadorian lawyers for information about the Chevron lawsuit. None of the individuals represented by the EFF, including journalists, activists and attorneys, were sued or accused of any wrongdoing by Chevron.

EFF senior staff attorney Marcia Hofmann said in the press release that people should be able to speak and travel without worrying about their communication activities being exposed to Chevron.

“These sweeping subpoenas create a chilling effect among those who have spoken out against the oil giant’s activities in Ecuador,” she said.

The motions to quash argue that anonymous speakers who are not parties to a lawsuit receive strong First Amendment protections.

“We look forward to having those longstanding principles applied in this case so that people can engage in journalism and political activism and assist in litigation against environmental destruction without fear that their identities and personal email information will be put at risk,” ERI legal director Marco Simons said in the press release.

Google told the court that it needed additional time to evaluate the subpoena and the burden it imposes. Yahoo and Microsoft have not publicly responded.

This is not the first attempt Chevron has made to subpoena private information. In 2010, the company subpoenaed more than 600 hours of uncut footage from a documentary about the pollution lawsuit. The filmmaker was forced to hand over the footage, and Chevron used evidence from the videos to sue those involved in the case.