Updated at 4:45 PM PST with a response from Google.
Google has reportedly sent a letter to a high-profile Caribbean investigative website called The TCI Journal saying it will supply the IP addresses used to access the Journal's primary GMail account unless the Journal supplies a legal counter-motion within the next two weeks. A libel suit filed against the Journal in Santa Clara, California Superior Court concerns its reporting of government corruption in the Turks & Caicos Islands.
This case is just the latest to be followed closely, reported on and even participated in by the controversial public interest document-exposure organization Wikileaks, a website where a staff of journalists and lawyers vet sensitive documents submitted by anonymous independent sources. The status of the case was summarized tonight by Julian Assange, Investigations Editor at Wikileaks.
According to Wikileaks and other reports, the TCI Journal has a history of reporting on rampant corruption on the Turks & Caicos Islands, a former British colony. "A trail of evidence dug up by the TCI Journal, a UK commission of inquiry, and others," Assange writes, "showed that foreign property developers were giving millions in secret loans and payments to senior Islander politicians, including an alleged $500,000 cash payment to the Island's now former Premier, Michael Misick." According to the UK Guardian, it was due to that corruption that the British government took over key governance processes on the island again earlier this month.
A property developer discussed at length in the Journal's documentation of corruption and in the official UK government inquiry report is now suing the journal for libel.
Google said the following in a letter to the TCI Journal last week, as posted on Wikileaks and sent to us by the Journal:
To comply with the law, unless you provide us with a copy of a motion to
quash the subpoena (or other formal objection filed in court) via email at
email@example.com by 5pm Pacific Time on September 16, 2009, Google
will assume you do not have an objection to production of the requested
information and may provide responsive documents on this date.
Google has not yet responded to our inquiry asking what the company might do once the TCI Journal does send a motion to quash the subpoena, which we presume it will do. Hiring lawyers in California will likely be an onerous task for a volunteer-run website from a tiny Caribbean island. Journal editors tell us that they hope Google will decide to help them fight the case on 1st amendment grounds.
Update: A Google spokesperson sent us the following response to our inquiry.
"When Google receives legal process, such as court orders and subpoenas, where possible we promptly provide notice to users to allow them to object to those requests for information. Users may raise any and all objections they feel are relevant, including First Amendment arguments. In addition, we are still evaluating all our legal options regarding this particular request."
In some ways, this case is reminiscent of Yahoo's providing user account information in 2005 to the Chinese government for journalist Shi Tao's Yahoo Mail account. Tao allegedly summarized a government order directing media organizations in China to downplay the upcoming 15th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for "illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities."