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US feds subpoena names of anonymous web commenters

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

The all-too-typical violent hyperbole found in reader comments across the internet has landed one Las Vegas newspaper in the hot seat with US prosecutors.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal says it has been served with a federal grand jury subpoena seeking information on people who posted supposedly threatening anonymous comments on a story about a tax fraud trial.

According to LVRJ, the subpoena seeks the identities and contact information of those who made certain posts prosecutors believe allude to acts of violence against the jury and others involved with the case.

In late May, the paper reported on the trial of Robert Kahre, a man accused of paying contractors with gold and silver coinage so he could report their lower face value to the IRS for tax purposes. On the paper's website, the story rather characteristically received hundreds of angry comments condemning the IRS, the court system, the US treasury, paper money, public schools, communists — what have you.

But two posts in particular caught the eye of the US Attorney for Nevada;

"The sad thing is there are 12 dummies on the jury who will convict him. They should be hung along with the feds," posted one of the offending commenters.

Another wagered "quatloos" (an alien currency from Star Trek) that one of the federal prosecutors wouldn't live to see his next birthday.

(Both comments have been removed from the website).

The paper originally received a subpoena on June 2 demanding the identities of every commenter on the article. LVRJ editor Thomas Mitchell declared he would fight the request, saying anonymous speech is "a fundamental and historic part of this country."

Before he could launch a protest, however, federal prosecutors decided their original request was overly broad. Instead, they narrowed their request to the two comments.

Mitchell now says he will comply with the subpoena.

"I'd hate to be the guy who refused to tell the feds Timothy McVeigh was buying fertilizer," Mitchell was quoted by the LVRJ, referring to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of a downtown federal building.

"We want to be good citizens and do the proper thing," Mitchell continued. "We will give them what we have, which frankly isn't much, since most postings are anonymous."

Meanwhile, The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada believes the narrowed request is still unreasonable.

"We don't think any of the comments we've seen are the appropriate target of government inquiry," ALCU staff attorney Margaret McLethie told the paper. Although the organization admitted it hasn't seen the comment that bets on a prosecutors death, it has moved forward with its own motion to quash the subpoena and offered to represent any of the commenters who want their help. ®

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