"How the Feds Asked Me to Rat Out Commenters"—And Why We Pushed Back

This sort of thing is one more reason why confidence in government is at all-time lows.


Emily Lendof/The Daily Beast

Regular readers of Reason.com know all about the recent federal subpoena and gag order we received.

The subpoena asked for identifying information we had on a half-dozen readers who left angry comments on a post about the verdict in the Silk Road Trial.

The comments ranged from suggesting the judge in the case should burn in hell to suggesting, in a well-known Internet homage to the movie Fargo, she be fed "feet-first" into a woodchipper. As Matt Welch and I have written, "The comments are hyperbolic, in questionable taste–and fully within the norms of Internet commentary." They certainly don't rise to the level of threat that should trigger requests from federal prosecutors.

We notified the commenters, who could have moved to quash the subpoena. Then the government hit us with a gag order, prohibiting us from talking about even the existence of the subpoena and the gag order. We fought to get the gag order lifted and once it was, we've been talking about the case.

I've got a new column up at The Daily Beast that gives more background on the matter. Here are some snippets:

To the extent that the feds actually thought these were serious plans to do real harm, why the hell would they respond with a slow-moving subpoena whose deadline was days away? By spending five minutes doing the laziest, George-Jetson-style online "research" (read: Google and site searches), they would have found publicly available info on some of the commenters. I'm talking things like websites and Google+ pages. One of the commenters had literally posted thousands of comments at Reason.com, from which it is clear that he (assuming it is a he) is not exactly a threat to anyone other than common decency.

But that's your tax dollars at work….

Getting a subpoena is like "only" getting arrested. It's a massive disruption to anyone's routine and should be reserved for moments when, you know, there's actually something worthy of serious investigation. And chew on this: You're only reading about this case because the subpoena became public after we disseminated it against the government's wishes (and before it could get a gag order against us), and because we later got the gag order lifted. There's every reason to believe that various publications, social media sites, and other platforms are getting tens of thousands of similar requests a year. How many of those requests are simply fulfilled without anyone knowing anything about them?…

"Confidence in U.S. Institutions Still Below Historical Norms," announces the headline for Gallup's annual survey on how Americans feel about authorities and services ranging from banks to the military to business to various aspects of the government and law enforcement. Confidence in the police, the presidency, the Supreme Court, and Congress are all well below annual averages calculated since 1973 or 1993 (depending on the area). Broadly speaking, there's no question that the country is becoming more libertarian—more skeptical of centralized power, especially when it's wielded by the state. Until the next gag order, I'm happy to share with you one of the reasons why that might be happening.

Read the whole piece here.