Google Inc. and other internet service providers have turned over confidential user information to a Portuguese soccer team that may help it identify anonymous bloggers who have written about allegations of wrongdoing against the serial national champion Benfica.
The information was turned over as part of a lawsuit Lisbon-based Benfica filed earlier this year in United States District Court in California as part of an effort to stop the bloggers.
Benfica has been battling a tide of leaked information for much of the past year that has cast a negative shadow over Portugal’s biggest club. The leaks have been drip-fed onto a specially created website since December 2017, producing sensational headlines and leading to a crisis within a club that counts some of the country’s most important politicians and business figures as members.
However, Benfica was unable to stop the leaks through Portugal’s legal system. So the club , a two-time European champion, turned in April to California’s courts. It issued subpoenas to Google and a handful of other companies that own the platforms used by the bloggers.
The efforts have paid off. “We only confirm that we made agreements with those digital platforms,” said a spokesman for Benfica. He declined to provide further details of the information the team received.
In a statement, Google said it complied with the legal process. “Google gave notice to impacted users who then had an opportunity to challenge the legal process in a U.S. court,” said a spokeswoman for the company.
The owner of the popular Artista do Dia blog is among those whose user identity has very likely been passed on to Benfica by Google. He received an email from Google in September telling him he could try to quash Benfica’s demand through a legal challenge.
Faced with thousands of dollars of legal fees, the author, whose identity The New York Times has confirmed, was able to only reply with an impassioned email, in which he outlined that he had not been responsible for the leak, and like many others, had written about a subject of enormous public interest.
“I thought Google and billions of users of Google services were protected by a company with principles and, above all, respect for users who trust their platforms,” said the writer, a professional services worker with two children. “I think it opens a very serious precedent that will only allow those with financial possibilities to remain anonymous.”
Benfica’s status within Portugal is immense. The team counts at least half of the country’s 10 million citizens as fans, the weight of which gives it a greater cultural and social significance than most ordinary sports teams. Even in good times details of exploits inside its Estadio da Luz home dominate local media.
The leaks, which began last year, have purported to show influence peddling schemes that targeted top soccer officials and, perhaps most worryingly for the club, efforts to influence the refereeing system. Benfica denies wrongdoing. It has separately been charged with illegally obtaining confidential information from a mole working inside the justice ministry.
The bloggers’ cases are not without precedent. They are similar to a yearslong legal battle between Chevron and internet providers Google, Yahoo and Microsoft in which the company sought identity information belonging to activists, attorneys, journalists and others who have spoken out against the company. )
Albert Gidari, consulting director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, said under current regulations Google had little option but to comply with Benfica’s subpoena. Internet companies get hundreds of thousands of similar requests, said Gidari, who spent 20 years representing some of the world’s biggest technology companies including Google. “It isn’t scalable to know what’s behind each case,” he said.
Google already goes “one step beyond” what it is required to do by giving notice of the subpoena to users, he added.
Benfica’s search for the bloggers and web users has dominated the headlines since The New York Times first reported on the issue earlier this month. Benfica fans have also tried to unmask the identity of those behind the blogs. In at least one case, the name and photograph of a man suspected of being one of the bloggers was widely circulated on the internet but turned out to be wrong.
Fans of Benfica’s rivals, Sporting Clube de Portugal and F.C. Porto, are behind most of the blogs the team is targeting for legal action. Benfica alleges the two other teams are part of a conspiracy to discredit it, a claim that is typical in soccer in Portugal, where club executives frequently launch allegations against one another. The leaks first appeared on a weekly television show on Porto’s channel, before a website called O Mercado de Benfica appeared in December 2017.
Porto’s communications director Francisco Marques said he received the data anonymously from an individual purporting to be a fan of the club. Marques said he passed all the files he received to the police. He suspects the website publishing the leaked information is run by the same person.
In its lawsuit in California, Benfica claimed the details published online were “trade secrets” that buttressed its success in winning championships and cultivated an academy system that generated “more than any other club in the world” in player sales this decade. The claim did not mention police raids on Benfica’s offices or ongoing investigations into alleged results manipulation and corruption it faces.
“Despite commencing numerous actions, both civil and criminal, in Portugal, Benfica has thus far been unable to stem the tide of stolen information or identify the thieves. It is clear to Benfica that only with the cooperation of the hosting organizations will Benfica be able to stop the campaign to discredit it,” its U.S. lawyers wrote.
Gidari, the former privacy lawyer, said the suit seemed similar to others brought by other large organizations confronting the public disclosure of damaging information.
He added that though in some cases there maybe valid reasons behind subpoenas they are often “strategic lawsuits brought to silence critics.”