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An anonymous person can, given some effort and a minimum of expertise, ruin a person's life on the internet through defamation. (The popular method currently is to forge authentic looking screenshots of a person posting insensitive or hateful statements, and setting them loose online)

If a person is victimized by an anonymous person online in this way, what are the steps for them to exact damages in a civil court case? Not too interested in if it's practical, I'm wondering if it's even possible.

  • How would a person compel Twitter/Reddit/etc. to disclose the ISP information on their account?

  • How would a person compel an ISP to disclose the subscriber information (address, name) for the IP address?

  • Is obtaining the ISP subscriber's information enough to bring a lawsuit against them? Would they able to argue they didn't post the messages and bear no liability, even if it originated from their network? If it originated from an open wifi hotspot, would the proprietor bear responsibility at this point?

  • Can the extensive legal costs of pursuing the case to its conclusion be added to the damages sought easily?

  • Please specify your jurisdiction. I got extensive experience litigating defamation in the US, but I couldn't advise you if you intend to file suit in a different country. – Iñaki Viggers Jun 14 '18 at 21:30
  • @IñakiViggers - apologies, I've amended the tags, it's the united states – anonymous Jun 14 '18 at 21:32
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what are the steps for them to exact damages in a civil court case? Not too interested in if it's practical, I'm wondering if it's even possible.

These preliminary items help you assess whether a defamation lawsuit is feasible:

  • In Texas, the statute of limitations for defamation claims is one year. A plaintiff is may file a defamation lawsuit only regarding statements that were published no more than a year prior to filing suit.
  • In order to recover damages, the plaintiff needs to prove that (1) he or she suffered harm as a result of the defamatory statements, unless (2) the falsehoods are defamatory per se (which typically refers to false accusations of infamous crimes, falsehoods prejudicing the plaintiff in his or her profession/trade/occupation, or false imputations of moral turpitude). Texas might slightly vary on this, which you will figure out when you do your research on case law.
  • The statements at issue need to constitute "statements of fact" or statements of opinion that are factually charged to the extent that they can be disproved. Generally speaking, statements of opinion are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

what are the steps for them to exact damages in a civil court case?

My suggestion is that you start by securing some evidence.

As an initial step you send a letter (and email, if possible) to Twitter/Reddit/etc. requesting a "preservation of records". That's the rather legal name for backup.

In your written request, indicate that you are interested in any and all records sent by _____ (fill in the blanks with the username(s) you know of) in the date range you specify. Ask that the preservation of records include -but not be limited to- their dates, times, length, content, IP address, location, and any other information regarding the identity of owners of those accounts. Try to get a receipt of your request. Ideally, these entities' legal department will notify you that they have complied with your request.

Meanwhile, get acquainted Chapter 73 (Libel) of Civil Practice and Remedies Code of Texas statutes, and the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. You don't need to master all the sections of the TRCP, as not all the rules are applicable to all types of cases. However, that will be your instructions manual on what requirements your motions and filings need to satisfy. Courts are not lenient on self-represented parties' non-compliance with the rules of civil procedure.

Upon notification that Twitter/etc. have complied with your request, send a message to the defamatory users requiring them to publish a retraction of all the defamatory publications you are aware of. Given them a reasonable deadline for their retractions. If a plaintiff skips this step prior to filing a complaint in the court, it will be very easy for the defendants to dismiss the lawsuit (see the procedural requirement in this opinion).

When you file your lawsuit (that is, the complaint), you will sue DOE Defendants, since chances are you haven't identified the individual(s) who defamed you. Keep in mind what I said about the one-year statute of limitations.

To discover the identities of your defamers, you will file a motion asking the court to sign an order for Twitter/Reddit/etc. to disclose the identities and records at issue.

Once you discover their identities, you will file (also through motion) an amended complaint replacing DOE Defendants by the name of the defamers you identified.

Would they able to argue they didn't post the messages and bear no liability, even if it originated from their network?

They will try, but preponderance of the evidence will -at least in theory- determine the outcome. Hence the importance of the discovery process. The above describes only the preliminary -although perhaps most important- discovery you will need to conduct.

If it originated from an open wifi hotspot, would the proprietor bear responsibility at this point?

I don't know what you mean by proprietor. Only the defamatory authors are liable.

Can the extensive legal costs of pursuing the case to its conclusion be added to the damages sought easily?

You'll figure that out from the Texas statutes on defamation/libel. I've litigated in Michigan, where the defamation statute entitles the prevailing plaintiff to recover attorney fees.

Note: court fees are very small compared to attorney fees, but litigating in pro per demands so much effort.

It is impossible to reflect in this answer the intricacies of litigation. These are just preliminary or starting points to help you make an informed decision on whether or how to proceed. Thus, consider the above information as a summary of how I would suggest you to proceed.

Two Texas cases regarding defamation are this and this. I encourage you to read these and other cases cited in those two opinions, as that exposure will help you understand how defamation law applies. Leagle.com is a great resource for legal research.

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    "wifi proprietor" - the manager or owner of the hotspot and/or coffee shop (they may not be the same). But as you say, the answer is "no". – Martin Bonner Jun 15 '18 at 12:27
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First, read the definitions of defamation and libel be sure you understand them: Defamation | Wex Legal Dictionary | Cornell.

Yes, posting to Twitter and Reddit is publishing, and people can post provably false facts on those services and defame someone in a civil law sense. But Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (Electronic Frontier Foundation) mostly protects those services from defamation claims based on statements made by users of such a service. (Things are different if the case is criminal as a result of clear threats of violence, terrorism, etc.)

...what are the steps for them to exact damages in a civil court case?

Find a lawyer, convince him/her to take the case, and file suit. if you don't know the person's real name, your lawyer will have to sue "John Doe" and point that out in the suit (and subpoenas) with the alleged Twitter handle or Reddit user name.

How would a person compel Twitter/Reddit/etc to disclose the ISP information on their account?

Read the various legal aspects of each service, i.e. Twitter Legal FAQs and User Agreement - Reddit and others. Your lawyer can explain that you can only try to compel them to disclose the IP and the ISP used with a subpoena during your lawsuit.

How would a person compel an ISP to disclose the subscriber information (address, name) on the IP address?

Since most ISPs protect their customer data, you will probably have to subpoena the ISP during your lawsuit. But your ability to do this can depend on if the ISP is a private company or a government entity, such as a university. State laws may come into play.

Is obtaining the ISP subscriber's information enough to bring a lawsuit against them? Would they able to argue they didn't post the messages and bear no liability, even if it originated from their network? If it originated from an open wifi hotspot, would the proprietor bear responsibility at this point?

Yes, you can sue an individual with such information; but there's no guarantee you'd win. Sure, because they can claim anything, such as someone else was using their computer or IP. No, owners of hotspots are generally not liable, and they protect themselves with TOS you agree to when you use the hotspot.

Can the extensive legal costs of pursuing the case to it's conclusion be added to the damages sought easily?

Legal costs can possibly be added, depending on jurisdiction. But seeking damages and actually winning them through a jury verdict are completely different things.

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