Instagram, which declined to comment on Mr. Watson’s suit, says online that it may share basic subscriber information when it is “indispensable to a case and not within a party’s possession upon personal service of a valid subpoena or court order.” That could include names, email addresses and I.P. addresses tied to recent logins — a significant detail given that many people appeared to be using the account. Internet service providers can then tie names to I.P. addresses. Instagram notifies account holders before sharing the data.
Ms. Citron said that the lawsuit underscored the risk of creating anonymous forums like Diet Madison Avenue rather than bringing allegations to the news media, civil rights groups or human resources departments.
“If what they’ve written is true, then they’ve got to get a lawyer and defend themselves — it’s expensive and time-consuming and they may very well not have any liability, but it’s brutal getting there,” she said. “I imagine these folks don’t have a huge amount of resources. They’re already vulnerable as it is, given they’re writing about being harassed, and they’re probably young women at work. I wish they hadn’t done it.”
There are issues for the other side, too.
“This trial is not going to be easy on the plaintiff because he’s going to be deposed and cross-examined and his H.R. history from the first day of his first job ever to now is all going to be exposed,” Mr. Cardozo said. “So he better be real sure that these are false; otherwise, suing was an absolutely terrible idea.”
Kat Gordon, the founder of the 3% Movement, which promotes the role of women in creative leadership in advertising, said that she found it implausible that the account “would concoct something totally fake and that an agency that had knowledge of this employee would just blindly fire him.” Still, she said, “if you are going to lose your job, you are entitled to know what was said about you and by whom and have a chance to defend yourself.”
There is also the question of whether messages about harassment that were sent to the account could be exposed through the lawsuit. Private parties cannot obtain such content from Instagram by law, Mr. Cardozo said, but lawyers could try to get the court to order Diet Madison Avenue to turn over that content. If the group refused to comply, then they could be held in contempt, he said.
Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said the case was an interesting example of “the roles these tech companies play in facilitating people’s speech.” The decision that the court will make will be challenging, she said.
“The reason that people are making these sorts of accounts anonymously is because of the fear of reprisal that they face — that’s a key part of why we have a First Amendment right to anonymous speech,” Ms. Llansó said. “On the other hand, defamation and untrue statements that are damaging to people’s reputations are also something our laws protect against.”