THINK YOUR EMAIL is private? Think again.
Two Portland LGBT activists got an alarming email in their Google mail inbox this month: Their "customer information" (including name, home address, phone numbers, and billing info) had been subpoenaed by the Alliance Defense Fund, a right-wing Christian nonprofit. Google, along with several other email providers nationwide, was ordered to hand over the activists' personal info in conjunction with a major lawsuit a Michigan mega-church is filing against queer group Bash Back.
"This really feels like an invasion of privacy, an invasion of my life," says Portlander Oliver Hayes, who, along with Kat Enyeart, received an email with the attached subpoena to be filled by March 16. "It's something that just happened because I'm a queer activist, because I'm a queer person. And that, in my opinion, is a very bad reason to track me down."
Hayes says he was not at the protest that sparked the church's lawsuit (and has never even set foot in Michigan) but that in 2008 he received an email from a listserv that discussed the protest.
The protest was controversial: In November 2008, about 20 Bash Back activists disrupted a Sunday service at the conservative Mount Hope Church in Lansing, Michigan. The group pulled a fire alarm, made out in front of the congregation, chanted "Jesus was a homo," and dropped a rainbow banner from the church balcony reading, "It's okay to be gay!" A few months later, ironically, the church sued Bash Back under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, a law intended to protect access to abortion clinics but also "places of worship" from intimidation and inference.
The suit names 15 Midwestern activists, but the church and Alliance Defense Fund are trying to pin down 20 John and Jane Does who may have advertised, supported, or planned the protest. During the past year, right-wing groups have subpoenaed identifying information about dozens of email addresses, says Bash Back's lawyer Mark Sniderman.
Under federal law, the courts can't go rifling through email inboxes. But everything that's not email "content"—like whatever identifying info you supply, or any profiles you create—can possibly be subpoenaed.
Though Google won't comment on this specific case, Sniderman says the only email provider to fight the subpoena is Riseup.net. If a judge finds the subpoena valid, even Riseup, a Seattle-based collective that promotes "self-determination by controlling our own secure means of communications," will have to turn over the personal info of its seven users facing the subpoena or face contempt-of-court charges.
For now, Hayes is waiting anxiously to see what happens. "These aren't people I feel safe around, them having my personal information is something I'm afraid of," says Hayes. "At this point, what we're making sure is that a lot of people are watching this unfold with us."
Download your very own copy of the lawsuit, here.
Download your very own copy of the subpoena, here.