A legal case could threaten your right to anonymously complain about your job
A case involving Glassdoor and the Electronic Freedom Foundation is at the center of free speech online.
Sometimes jobs really suck. If you leave a job that really sucked, you might want to go on Glassdoor and warn the masses that your job there really sucked. If that's not a right, then I don't know what country I'm living in anymore. One company in California doesn't like that a former employee went on Glassdoor and shared their opinions on how they felt working there—so they're suing.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently filed a motion to quash a subpoena on behalf of a former employee of a cryptocurrency exchange company called Kraken after the company alleged in a lawsuit that the employee violated a severance agreement that does not allow them to disclose confidential information about the company, disparage the company or defame it after the termination of their employment. Kraken is apparently hoping to learn the identity of this former employee through the subpoena.
As EFF explained in a blog post on Wednesday, its client was one of several employees who left anonymous reviews on Kraken's Glassdoor page after being terminated. Knowing the terms of the severance agreement, the client carefully crafted a review that they believed would not violate it. They shared good aspects of working at the company and negative aspects of the job.
Initially, Kraken responded by thanking them for the feedback. In May of last year, Kraken apparently decided it was not pleased with these reviews. The company determined that its severance contracts had been violated and started suing. EFF's client deleted their review, but the company is still going after them.
Naomi Gilens, an attorney at EFF, tells Inverse that it's not terribly unusual for a company to sue to try to get the identity of an anonymous Glassdoor reviewer if they're arguing the former employee defamed them. However, she said, Kraken isn't even claiming the company was defamed. It's simply trying to identify this person because of an alleged breach of contract.
"This is a client who is only sharing their honest opinion of their employer," Gilens says. "The employer is seeking to unmask them without even claiming that they engaged in defamation."
As Gilens explains, California's courts have not made clear what's allowed in this kind of situation up to this point. It's clear someone can be unmasked if it appears they defamed a company, but this is a case where a person isn't being accused of defamation but a company is trying to unmask them anyway. The First Amendment doesn't protect you from being sued for defamation, but EFF's client was engaging in constitutionally protected speech.
"This is a case where a client left a review giving both positive and negative opinions about a company, where these opinions are really of great public interest and this is really quintessential speech that is protected by the First Amendment," Gilens says. "Anonymous speech, separately, is its own important First Amendment value. Anonymous speech has always been protected by the Constitution."
Kraken is a significant player in a growing industry, so there may be a lot of people who want to know what it's like to work there. Not only was the review constitutionally protected, it had value. Gilens says that this case isn't just about one reviewer but potentially how allowing a company to unmask someone while they're engaging in constitutionally protected speech could have a ripple effect.
"When you unmask an anonymous speaker, there a chilling effect on the speaker themselves, but it doesn't only chill the speaker," Gilens says. "As you can imagine, a lot of other people who want to speak out about this company or other companies or other issues but fear retaliation may choose not to speak because they're concerned they'll also be unmasked."
Kraken did not respond to a request for comment before this piece was published. The company may have been trying to protect its image with this lawsuit, but it feels like we're witnessing the Streisand Effect now that the dispute has gained national attention.
"We obviously can't speak to why they filed this case, but from our perspective, it does appear to be a vindictive lawsuit that is designed to target former employees for giving honest opinions about the company and to prevent other people from doing that as well," Gilens says.