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Google Weighs Fighting Gmail Subpoena

A property developer is seeking to identify critics associated with a Gmail address used by TCI Journal, an online site covering the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Google is mulling whether to join in an effort to fight a subpoena that seeks the identity of a Gmail account holder associated with TCI Journal, an online news site covering the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI), an independent British protectorate until earlier this month.

On August 14, the U.K. government took control of the islands "to clean up public life in the Turks and Caicos Islands." A recent report on the islands commissioned by the U.K. government suggests various financial irregularities.

Wikileaks has posted a copy of the subpoena for Gmail data, which was filed on behalf property developer Dr. Cem Kinay.

In July, Wikileaks also posted a version of the report commissioned by the U.K. government that had been improperly redacted, revealing financial donations to a former TCI premiere, deputy premiere, and prime minister.

The report details undisclosed donations to former TCI Premier Michael Misick and other officials, one of which was a $500,000 donation in January 2007, "purportedly for election campaigning expenses, from Turks Ltd, the company of Dr. Cem Kinay, the developer of Dellis Cay and the proposed developer of Joe Grant Cay."

The redacted report conceals the $500,000 figure and its alleged source.

Julian Assange, editor of Wikileaks, characterized the attempt to identify the holder of the TCI Journal Gmail account as "libel tourism." Aggrieved parties often prefer to file libel lawsuits in the U.K., where libel defendants have fewer defenses than in the U.S.

A spokesperson for TCI Journal characterized the subpoena it received for its Gmail account information as an effort to silence the press.

"We believe this action is basically an attempt to intimidate us and our contributors through the potential burden of high legal costs in order to stop reporting on the activities of Dr. Kinay of the Dellis Cay Mandarin Oriental, within the Turks and Caicos Islands," a TCI Journal spokesperson said via e-mail. "We would invite the world press to ask the executives of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group if they support these and similar actions of their associate Dr. Kinay."

A spokesperson for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group did not respond to a call seeking comment.

Google's notice to TCI Journal states the online news site must respond with a formal objection to the release of the subpoenaed information by 5pm PT, September 16. Otherwise, Google will accede to the legal demand and provide the data.

TCI Journal's spokesperson said that the site has supporters who will be assisting it in resisting the subpoena on First Amendment grounds and that Google is considering whether to join in that effort.

Asked to confirm whether Google intends to support TCI Journal's effort to oppose the subpoena, a Google spokesperson offered the following statement via e-mail: "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."

Google was the only major search engine to resist the U.S. government's 2005 subpoenas for search query records, information the government sought to bolster its effort to uphold the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA).

Eric Goldman, associate professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, said that he wouldn't be surprised if Google chose to resist this demand.

"They're aware of the issues at stake here," he said, citing the criticism Yahoo faced following its decision to reveal the identity of a Chinese journalist to Chinese authorities several years ago. "They're sensitive to the fact that their data centers contain valuable information."

But keeping that information confidential requires determination on the part of defendants. "If there's no challenge by the service provider or the customer, it can be trivially easy to obtain information," Goldman said.

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