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Social Media Subpoena Guide 2015 Edition

NOTE: I’m in the process of updating this Guide. I’m updating and expanding it to a full ebook on social media discovery / evidence. It will be the best one-stop shop for getting up-to-speed on social media discovery. Available near the end of 2016.

I initially wrote about how to subpoena various social media sites back in 2011. Seeing as it has been a few years I thought it was time to provide an update.

It’s worth noting that almost every site you attempt to subpoena will throw up the Stored Communication’s Act, (18 U.S.C. §2701) as a defense:

Stored Communications Act

Courtesy Cornell University Law School

That is, they’ll all claim that it prevents them from “disclosing the contents of an account to any non-governmental entity pursuant to a subpoena or court order.” (EFF has a good overview of the law here). Which stands now, but I wonder how long it will really last. With so much information that could be highly relevant to a wide variety of civil cases now being stored in social media accounts, people are continually attempting to challenge the law (more below).

When it comes to email, courts have been disinclined to enforce civil subpoenas against these companies. See In re Subpoena Duces Tecum to AOL, LLC, 550 F. Supp. 2d 606 (E.D. Va. 2008) where the court held that there is no civil subpoena exception to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”) or the Stored Communications Act (“SCA”) that permit the disclosure of the content of communications:

Here there is no pertinent ambiguity in the language of the statute. It clearly prohibits any disclosure of stored e-mail, other than as authorized by enumerated exceptions. Apple would apparently have us declare an implicit exception for civil discovery subpoenas. But by enacting a number of quite particular exceptions to the rule of non-disclosure, Congress demonstrated that it knew quite well how to make exceptions to that rule. O’Grady v. Superior Court, 139 Cal. App. 4th 1423 (2006).

Courts have ruled that email services fall under the category of ECS (see below). But results are mixed when it comes to social media postings (Facebook wall posts, tweets, shared photos, etc).


Much of it comes down to how something is classified. First up is ECS. An electronic communication service (“ECS”) is “any service which provides to users thereof the ability to send or receive wire or electronic communications.” 18 USC § 2510(15). The other category is RCS. The term “remote computing service” (“RCS”) is defined by 18 U.S.C. § 2711(2) as “the provision to the public of computer storage or processing services by means of an electronic communications system.” But, there is no clear ruling on how courts classify social media sites into one category or the other.

The most in-depth analysis to-date is found in Crispin v. Christian Audigier, Inc., 717 F.Supp.2d 965 (2010), wherein the defendant served subpoenas on numerous social media services and the plaintiff moved to quash, claiming protection under the ECPA. The judge held that social media services operate as both ECS and ECS providers:

After presenting background on the SCA, Judge Morrow addressed the primary issue of whether the subpoenas should be quashed under the SCA. Recognizing that no court “appears to have addressed whether social-networking sites fall within the ambit of the [SCA],” the court took a two-step approach. First, the court determined whether Media Temple, Facebook, and MySpace qualified as ECS providers under existing case law. Second, the court asked whether the specific content on these services met the definition of “electronic communications.” Ultimately, it concluded that the services operate as ECS and RCS providers at different times, depending on the content at issue. Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, 24 Harv. J.L. & Tech. 563, Spring, 2011.

For private messages (Facebook private messages, DMs on Twitter, etc) on social media services, the court really focused on storage:

As respects messages that have not yet been opened, those entities [Facebook, MySpace,etc.] operate as ECS providers and the messages are in electronic storage because they fall within the definition of “temporary, intermediate storage” under § 2510(17)(A). As respects messages that have been opened and retained by Crispin, under the reasoning of Weaver and Flagg, and the dicta in Theofel, the three entities operate as RCS providers providing storage services under § 2702(a)(2). [See United States v. Weaver, 636 F. Supp. 2d 769, 770 (C.D. Ill. 2009), Flagg v. City of Detroit, 252 F.R.D. 346, 349 (E.D. Mich. 2008), & Theofel v. Farey-Jones, 359 F.3d 1066, 1070 (9th Cir. 2004).]

For wall posts and other public or quasi public postings, the court found that, “in the context of a social-networking site such as Facebook or MySpace, there is no temporary, intermediate step for wall postings or comments. Unlike an email, there is no step whereby a Facebook wall posting must be opened, at which point it is deemed received. Thus, a Facebook wall posting or a MySpace comment is not protectable as a form of temporary, intermediate storage.” Crispin, 717 F. Supp. 2d at 989-90. Eventually, the court came to the conclusion that what matters is whether content posted on social media services is “completely public” or not:
Regardless of whether Facebook and MySpace are ECS or RCS providers, the Crispin court cautioned that “a completely public BBS does not merit protection under the SCA.” In order to be protected from disclosure, therefore, Facebook Wall posts and MySpace Comments must not be “completely public.” Judge Morrow distinguished Facebook and MySpace from “completely public” BBS by noting that the users of both websites can limit public access via privacy settings. Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, 24 Harv. J.L. & Tech. 563, Spring, 2011.
Yet other cases have disregarded the SCA and allowed subpoenas to issue to social media providers, see Ledbetter v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.,  2009 WL 1067018,  (D. Colo. Apr. 21, 2009) (court found that the subpoenas were “reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence as is relevant to the issues in this case.”) and Romano v. Steelcase Inc., 907 N.Y.S.2d 650, (Sup. Ct. 2010) (court found that defendant’s request fell within the scope of permissible discovery under New York evidence law and production of said documents did not violate the plaintiff’s right to privacy). For criticism/discussion of Romano, see Deleted Facebook and MySpace Posts Are Discoverable.


So is social media information accessible via civil subpoena? Who knows. Courts are all over the place with it. If you do want to subpoena a social media account, I’d say your best bet is to:
  • Avoid seeking private messages. Only seek out quasi-public messages/postings. That is anything that is available on a user’s timeline/wall/feed, accessible to either to the public or large groups of people (friends of friends, etc.)
  • Narrowly focus your request as per the FRCP – “reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1). Time-constrain your request as is relevant to the suit at hand.
  • Below is a list of resources to get you started issuing a subpoena to social media services.







  • Not exactly a social media service, but here’s my guide on how to subpoena Amazon. Though give Amazon time before they have their own social media service. It’s coming. Regardless, I’ve run the gauntlet on this one. Tedious.







  • ECPA Definitions
  • Info. Security & Privacy: A Guide to Fed & State Law & Compliance, Westlaw. © 2014 Thomson Reuters.
  • Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, 24 Harv. J.L. & Tech. 563, Spring, 2011
  • phil50

    Awesome resource. Thanks for this.

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  • Extremely well-written. Thanks for taking the time to research all of this information.

  • Although more related to criminal investigations and 4th Amendment reasonable expectations of privacy, I think Judge Scheindlin’s recent opinion in US v DiTomasso, No. 14–cr–160, 2014 WL 5462467 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 28, 2014) deserves attention. It focuses on the service agreements, and determines that while there may be a generally recognized reasonable expectation of privacy in emails and private chat carried over social media platforms, the service agreement of one platform (AOL) expressly allowed for the host to cooperate with law enforcement, while the service agreement of another (Omegle) did not. I don’t know if anyone has tested this in the civil context — can the fact that the service agreement expressly allows for cooperation with law enforcement in the criminal context open the door to cooperation with the courts in answering civil subpoenas, such that the user has essentially waived SCA/ECPA protections? Just askin’…

    • It’s a good question, and definitely an avenue to pursue for those in civil practice. But I haven’t expressly looked into it. I’m not super up-to-date with obtaining social media records in a criminal context since I don’t practice criminal law.

      That being said, I’ve been speaking with another lawyer I know here locally who does criminal work and has had success in the past with getting social media information from various platforms. I’m going to chat with him at some point in the near future in depth about it. I might circle back and do another guide but focused on criminal law if I think it warrants a post.

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  • Keith:

    Do these companies tend to fight back on basic requests for account ownership information? (e.g. registered name, email, address, etc). Thank you!