MANHATTAN (CN) - Having blocked attorneys from collecting a $9.5 billion verdict against it, Chevron has dropped its legal battle to identify anonymous online detractors, digital privacy advocates say.
Months before an Ecuadorean court assigned it liability for pollution of the Amazon blamed on Texaco, the San Ramon, Calif.-based parent Chevron started a discovery blitz for information that would help it attack the award as fraudulent.
The company's two-year hunt for evidence took it to federal courts in California, Colorado, Texas, California and elsewhere. In New York, federal and appellate courts forced filmmaker Joseph Berlinger to turn over hours of unused footage from his documentary "Crude."
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who presided over Berlinger discovery, later ruled in Chevron's RICO trial that the Ecuadorean award had been "procured by corrupt means."
As an appeal of that finding heats up, Chevron last week settled the bicoastal controversy that erupted from its attempts to subpoena anonymous Google, Yahoo and Microsoft accounts.
In September 2012, a year before the New York trial, Chevron had requested identity information and nearly a decade of IP login and usage information about the holders of more than 100 email accounts, EarthRights International said.
Chevron spokesman Morgan Crinklaw emphasized in an email that the "subpoenas were not seeking email content, only user account sign-up information and IP logs."
Nate Cardozo, an Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney who represented some of the subpoena's targets, noted in a phone interview that this argument curiously resembled the U.S. government's defense of bulk phone-data collection. Chevron even wrote in one brief that the information it sought was "just metadata," Cardozo added.
"Every time someone says it's 'just metadata,' it's time to take a hard look at what they're saying," he added.
In reality, Chevron had been barred by law from getting the email content, and the nine years of IP information it wanted would have let it figure out the location of a user who checked the email on a smartphone, Cardozo said.
Indeed, a press release from Cardozo's co-counsel at the nonprofit group EarthRights cheekily spoofed the "Chevron Intelligence Agency" by placing the oil giant's corporate logo on top of the CIA's seal.
Both nonprofits sparred with Chevron over this information on both coasts on behalf of 37 targets of the subpoenas, arguing that the requests posed a threat to the First Amendment right to speak and associate freely and anonymously.
A California federal judge presiding over the cases involving Yahoo and Google accounts quashed all but seven of the subpoenas, and its appellate court nixed an additional six.
Back in New York, however, Judge Kaplan forced Microsoft to turn over Hotmail account information for four of the groups' clients before trial, refusing to wait for the matter to be appealed.
With 2nd Circuit arguments pending, Chevron reached a settlement that would keep the user information it already obtained confidential and dropped the remaining requests. Both sides proclaimed victory over the result.
"We are proud to have been able to assist in that fight and to have ultimately succeeded in protecting the rights of more than 30 activists, lawyers, journalists and other brave individuals who stand up to corporate power and speak out against injustice around the world," the EarthRights statement says.
Its legal director Marco Simons said that he could not reveal the identities of his anonymous clients, but he noted that certain identities have since become public information. Blogger Kevin Jon Heller of OpinioJuris slammed his subpoena as intimidation in a blog post. Another email address published in a California ruling contained the name of British journalist Simeon Tagel, who writes for Global Post and has volunteered for Amazon Watch.
Chevron, which named that environmental group in its New York lawsuit, called the allegations of speech-chilling "baseless."
"Chevron was forced to serve subpoenas on email service providers as part of the fraud and racketeering case against Steven Donziger and his associates because of their attempts to conceal illicit activities and obstruct discovery in courts around the United States," Morgan said, referring to the New York lawyer who was the lead defendant in the RICO lawsuit.
Cardozo countered that the subpoenas sought to "intimidate anyone who's worked with Donziger."
"These subpoenas are a clear indication that Chevron is watching, and that Chevron's making sure that nobody ever works with Donziger again," he said.