Playing Simon Says: California’s Crazy, Crazy Reader Privacy Act

Electronic Simon game from the 1980sGetting a subpoena is a highly unpleasant experience.

A subpoena is a legal document that commands you to hand over documents or appear someplace at a certain time to answer questions under oath. Subpoenas are necessary to get the business of our civil justice system done, but they can make the IRS seem like an old friend by comparison.

And that makes for what I think is the biggest problem with the Reader Privacy Act, a new California law intended to increase people’s privacy with regard to what books they choose to read. (More problems here and here.) To accomplish this, the new law puts certain requirements on any online “book service” provider (which, oddly, might include a blog) that receives a subpoena seeking information on any of the provider’s readers. The requirements are that before complying with the the subpoena, the “book service” provider must give notice to any reader whose information is sought and/or the provider must make a number of determinations about the legal appropriateness of the subpoena.

So, for instance, a provider covered under the law is not allowed to comply with a qualifying subpoena unless the provider first gives 35-day advance notice to the reader about the reader’s ability to seek a motion to quash the subpoena. §1798.90(c)(2)(B)(iv).

Just think about that for a minute: The subpoena is an order issued by a court commanding a person to do something. But under this new law, a person is prohibited by law from obeying that court order unless and until the person fulfills certain requirements.

You would think, if you got a court order, you’d be safe in obeying it. But not so!

And that’s crazy. That’s more than just crazy. That’s the Crazy Suite at the Hotel Crazy.

But wait, it actually gets crazier.

Under §1798.90(c)(1), it is illegal for a covered “book service” provider to obey a subpoena commanding the disclosure of information to a law enforcement agency unless the law enforcement agency has met two conditions and the court itself has met three conditions. For instance, you can’t obey a subpoena under the law unless the court first “finds that the law enforcement entity seeking disclosure has a compelling interest in obtaining the personal information sought.” §1798.90(c)(1)(B).

Yes, that means it’s illegal for you to do something the court is commanding you to do unless the court made a certain finding before hand. To be quite plain, it is unlawful for you to comply with a court order demanding that you cooperate with law enforcement.

That’s beyond crazy. That’s No. 1 Crazy Street, Crazy City, Crazyland, U.S.A.

The only precedent I can think for whackitude like this is the children’s game of Simon Says. In Simon Says, the leader barks commands preceded by the words “Simon says.” If you obey a command that is not preceded by the words “Simon says,” you’re out.

It’s silly, but that’s what makes it fun. For children. Who are playing.

But it’s not fun for the California legislature to do this. It’s not fun at all.

If the California legislature thinks the courts and the police are out of control, then – I hate to have to point out the obvious here – they can put restrictions on the courts and the police. That only makes sense.

Instead, the California legislature has made it illegal for people to cooperate with the police and the courts when the police and courts are, in the legislature’s judgment, going too far.

But wait. It gets CRAZIER still. Look at this provision:

A provider shall disclose personal information of a user to a law enforcement entity only pursuant to a court order issued by a duly authorized court with jurisdiction over an offense that is under investigation and only if …
[p]rior to issuance of the court order, the law enforcement entity seeking disclosure provides, in a timely manner, the provider with reasonable notice of the proceeding to allow the provider the opportunity to appear and contest issuance of the order.

§1798.90(c)(1)(D).

That’s right: It’s illegal for you to obey the subpoena if the police didn’t inform you of your right to contest the subpoena.

That’s like making it illegal for a suspect to answer questions while in police custody if the police failed to inform the suspect of the suspect’s right to remain silent.

That’s P.O. Box Crazy Crazy Crazy, Crazytown Station, Crazy Valley Acres, California 95814.

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