Cyber hijinks look set to be aired in the High Court shortly, over a legal dispute between a Donegal based engineering firm (DRM Contract Administration) and the Swiss encryption platform Protonmail.

Stemming from a refusal by Protonmail’s parent company Proton Technologies to divulge the identity of an email account alleged to have defamed the Donegal firm, the case if successfully waged could open up a can of worms on online anonymity globally.

Founded in 2014, Protonmail has led the way in being an encrypted alternative to the tech oligarchs at Google and Yahoo and their notoriously porous attitude towards user privacy. Boasting 50 million users as of 2020, the platform has found favour not least of all with political dissidents or those merely critical of the invasions of personal privacy by big tech.

Arriving before Judge Garrett Simons last July, the case raises a variety of questions regarding platform responsibility as well as where online jurisdictions begin and end, from a legal perspective.

Secure email: ProtonMail is free encrypted email.
Coming to prominence for its encrypted features, Protonmail is in the dock for its refusal to hand over the details of a user who made allegations against a Donegal based engineering firm

The issue first arose with the use of the Protonmail platform to send defamatory emails in May and August of 2018. Under the allies ‘ConcernedTaxPayer11’ allegations that a senior member of the Donegal business had ‘engaged  in  fraudulent  activities  in respect  of  the N56  Kilkenny  to  Letterilly  road  project” involving funding for the project were emailed to the company.

In addition to the company itself, the email containing these allegations was forwarded to a number of local politicians and media outlets. In tandem with this case brought by DRM, a similar defamation case is being brought between the individual named and the Swiss encryption company over the allegations, which they deny.

Citing Swiss law, Protonmail objected to the case on the grounds that it was protected under Swiss law. Rejecting this, Justice Simons ruled in favour of deciding on the matter for October 20th provided the two parties fail to come to some arrangement.

Its not the first time Irish defamation law has become a fulcrum point in landmark disputes with tech firms, as both Facebook and Buzzfeed found themselves before Irish courts recently pertaining to defamation. With the nation’s onerous laws on defamation we have witnessed something of a safari tour of major tech names falling under the auspices of Irish gavels in recent years.

While the individual and firm at the centre of events have the right to defend their good names against allegations they entirely deny, one wonders if a precedent ruling in favour of the plaintiff could bring on the issue of cyber anonymity. As the last holdouts quickly disappear in an online world fast consolidating, abrogating the right of platforms to protect the identities of potential whistleblowers or even casual users ought be a concern to all.

The final ruling by Judge Simons should make for some interesting reading and will  almost certainly have more long term implications on what is said and done in the High Court come October.

Posted by Ciaran Brennan

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