A man trying to sue Google is so terrified of being doxed by the ad tech company's Lumen Database that he has managed to hide his name from High Court judges for almost a year.
The anonymous claimant, a middle-aged man we can only name as ABC, appeared without a lawyer at London's High Court on Friday (24 August) in an apparent attempt to bargain with judge Mr Justice Nicklin over whether he would give Google and the court his name.
ABC appeared to have been hiding his identity from the court since before 4 December 2017, when a master (procedural judge) of the Queen's Bench division had ordered him to identify himself to both the judge and to Google, something ABC had not done by last week's hearing.
"Orders of the court are not matters that you are free to decide when and if you will comply with them. When a court orders - makes an order like this, you comply with it," said Mr Justice Nicklin. "I've never encountered a case in which one party has not known the identity of the other party."
An anonymity order made by the court means we cannot give details of what ABC wants to sue Google for, other than that it concerns allegations of defamation, malicious falsehood and breached data protection laws. It appears that he is upset about something posted on a Google-owned website.
It became apparent during the hearing that neither the judge, the court clerks, nor Google's lawyers knew ABC's name despite the court briefly sitting in private to argue about it. Communications between the three appeared to have taken place over email only, with no hard copies being used despite the High Court normally requiring this.
ABC told Mr Justice Nicklin: "This is not about disobedience to the court order. As your lordship is well aware, especially as a judge in this area, this is a very comfortable [sic], complex area. Unless the court, in the round, understands all the circumstances of the case as to the background, as to any risk that actually, of undermining the order, obviously that will defeat the object."
"The order that I'm minded to make is that you've got seven days to give the defendants your name as was directed by the court back on 4th December. If you fail to do that I'm going to strike your action out," said the visibly angry judge, who continued after ABC tried to interrupt him: "No. Listen. I'm not going to bargain with a litigant, who's in default of an order, about the terms of which he complies with a court order. It's not going to be done on the basis 'you demand, I provide'. You [demand] remedies against a defendant who doesn't even know who you are!"
"All the applicant is trying to do is contain this complex issue," riposted ABC, speaking about himself in the third person and waving his arms expressively, revealing what appeared to be a gold-coloured watch below his cuff-linked sleeve. "This is not about evading the obligation to disclosure my- the applicant's identity".
Dressed in mismatched jacket and trousers, ABC went on to talk at the judge at great length, mentioning "the Lumen Database" and saying "the public can access this database". Google's Lumen Database, previously known as the Chilling Effects website, is a publicly available list of takedown requests made to Google by people who want embarrassing search results deleted. Last year a German court ordered Google to stop using it as a workaround to evade court-ordered takedowns, while occasionally it is useful for spotting when wrong'uns are trying to cleanse their publicly searchable reputations. His argument appeared to be that if he identified himself to anybody at all, somehow the details of his court case – and his identity – would appear on there.
Dismissing ABC's attempt to have more potential punishments dumped on Google if it breached the anonymity order and identified him, Mr Justice Nicklin ruled that ABC must provide his name and address to the ad tech company and the court within seven days, commenting: "The refusal is going to stop and if it doesn't the claim is going to be struck out... Until that information is provided, as I've already identified, if the claimant has concerns over the anonymity order, if he does want to amend it, he can make an application. He's going to comply with the order the court has made and before any further progress in this action takes place."
Solicitors from London law firm Pinsent Masons and barrister David Sherborne represented Google. The ad tech company's legal team said comparatively little during the hearing, which ended at about 6pm on a Bank Holiday Friday. ®