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Redditor wins right to use anonymous screen name in copyright case

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Bringing First Amendment protections to Reddit

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

A Redditor who posted information about a Jehovah’s Witness-affiliated organization has won the right to defend themselves in court under a pseudonym. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represented the user known only as Darkspilver, successfully argued that unmasking them put them at risk of being cast out by their Jehovah’s Witness community.

Not only does the ruling mean that Darkspilver’s identity will not be revealed to the organization, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, it also found that Reddit posts are protected by the US’s First Amendment, regardless of where the user is from. The judge overseeing the case ruled that the First Amendment should apply because Reddit is a US-based company with a US audience.

Back in February, Darkspilver posted a copy of an advertisement asking for donations that appeared on the back page of Watch Tower’s magazine. Alongside this, they posted a chart showing the kinds of personal information kept by the organization. The EFF says that they did so in order to raise concerns about the organization, but Watch Tower claimed that the post infringed its copyright and subpoenaed Reddit for information on the user.

In order to unmask the Redditor, the EFF says Watch Tower needed to have passed the “Doe” test, which requires the organization to prove that its claims are valid and that disclosing the person’s identity is worth the potential harm. However, the court said that the post was likely to be protected under fair use, meaning it was meant for commentary and criticism. The judge also rejected Watch Tower’s claim that the Doe test should not apply because Darkspilver is not a US resident.

If Watch Tower decides to proceed with its lawsuit, only its counsel will learn Darkspilver’s real identity, and they will not be able to share it with the organization. The EFF says it disagrees with this final decision, but that overall it is “celebrating a crucial win for the First Amendment and access to anonymous speech for internet users everywhere.”