When unidentified individuals defame businesses or professionals online, the harmed parties can potentially serve subpoenas on relevant entities for documents containing identifying information about the authors of the online defamation.
The way this process often plays out is as follows (noting this is extremely generalized):
- Party A publishes false and defamatory statements about Party B in a review on a third-party website;
- Party B, which/who has adequate legal grounds for doing so, files a lawsuit against the unknown Party A for defamation and related causes of action;
- Party B serves a subpoena—seeking documents containing identifying information pertaining to Party A—on the parent company of the website on which Party A published his or her defamatory statements
- The subpoenaed entity produces the requested documents, from which Party B will either learn Party A’s identity, or Party B will need to consider issuing additional subpoenas based on new information produced in response to the first subpoena (such as IP addresses and/or email addresses owned by other entities).
While we most often see internet defamation take place on third-party websites—and we have published several blog posts about using subpoenas to identify anonymous defamers on various websites—some people actually register new domains and publish false and defamatory content on their own websites.
In this latter scenario, the website owner/author of the damaging statements is unlikely to leave identifying information on his or her website. Further, he or she might even use a privacy service to hide his or her contact information, which is legitimate so long as he or she has not provided fake or inaccurate contact information.