Earlier this week, EarthRights International (ERI) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) asked federal judges in California and New York to quash subpoenas issued by Chevron Corporation to three email providers demanding identifying information and usage records of more than 100 email accounts. On Tuesday, the District Court in California stayed enforcement of the subpoenas while requiring Chevron to consider ERI and EFF’s objections.
The subpoenas are the latest onslaught by Chevron in the long-running battle over damage caused by oil drilling in Ecuador. After years of litigation, an Ecuadorian court last year imposed an $18 billion judgment on Chevron for dumping toxic waste into Amazon waterways used by indigenous groups for drinking water and causing massive harm to the rainforest. Instead of paying, Chevron sued more than 50 people who were involved in the Ecuador lawsuit, including the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and their counsel, claiming they were part of a conspiracy to defraud the oil giant. None of the individuals represented by EFF and ERI has been sued by Chevron or accused of wrongdoing.
The sweeping subpoenas issued to Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft in September 2012, demand identity information and nine years of usage records from email accounts belonging to environmental advocates, journalists, and attorneys, among others. The information Chevron wants could be used to create a detailed map of the individuals' locations and associations over nearly a decade.
"Environmental advocates have the right to speak anonymously and travel without their every move and association being exposed to Chevron," said Marcia Hofmann, EFF Senior Staff Attorney. "These sweeping subpoenas create a chilling effect among those who have spoken out against the oil giant's activities in Ecuador."
The motions to quash filed Monday asked the courts to reject the subpoenas, pointing out that anonymous speakers who are not parties in a lawsuit receive particularly strong First Amendment protections. EFF, a leading Internet privacy organization and ERI’s former co-counsel in the Bowoto v. Chevron litigation, first won court recognition of this protection in Doe v. 2theMart.com in 2001. Chevron's subpoenas also violate the legal protections for the right of association for political action that were developed during the civil rights era.
"The courts have long recognized that forcing activists to reveal their names and political associations will chill First Amendment rights and can only be done in the most extreme situations," added Marco Simons, Legal Director of ERI. "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."
EFF and ERI are challenging the subpoenas to Google and Yahoo! in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California and the subpoena to Microsoft in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. Peter Henner is local counsel working with EFF and ERI in New York.
ERI has also filed a number of amicus briefs in the Chevron/Ecuador litigation.