by Paul Alan Levy
I have blogged in the past about servile Internet hosts that provide information in response to subpoenas without giving their customers a chance to oppose discovery by showing that they have done nothing wrong. This fact confirms the importance of the notice component of the “Dendrite” test for identifying anonymous speakers. A lawsuit filed yesterday, however, shows the impact that routine disclosure may have.
Anthony Chai, a naturalized US citizen who emigrated from Thailand, runs a computer store in California. Using the store's computers, Chai and his customers posted anonymous comments critical of the king of Thailand on a Thai-language pro-democracy website, Manusaya.com. Thailand forbids criticism of the king – the legal principle of lèse majesté – and when the Canadian Internet hosting firm Netfirms (which is incorporated in Delaware and maintains a US office) received a complaint from the Thai government, it not only shut down the web site but provided Chai’s IP address and two e-mail addresses associated with the posts. Thailand has long shown its insistence on applying the principle even to criticism voiced in other countries, when the speakers expose themselves to its authority by, for example, visiting the country.
When Chai was home visiting family in Thailand, he was detained at the airport and subjected to extensive questioning and to threats of violence against his family both in the United States and in Thailand. He was also repeatedly questioned in the United States, with prosecutors using the threat of prosecution, and dangling the possibility that the charges could be lifted if he cooperated by providing more information about others. The prosecutor also demanded expensive gifts. Chai has been officially charged in the Thai courts with lèse majesté, and consequently he can no longer return to his native land to visit his family. Ironically, most of Chai's posts were directed at the injustice of the lèse majesté laws, rather than at the Thai king himself.
Represented by Human Rights USA, Chai has now filed suit against Netfirms seeking relief for negligence, violation of Section 17200 of the California, as well as violations of his constitutional right of privacy (the California constitution has been held to extend to some private conduct). Kudos to Human Rights USA and the firm of Snell and Wilner which has taken the lead in pursuing this important case.