A US court will today hear a request from Monsanto for access to a huge batch of internal communications by Avaaz, in a move that the campaign group says could have grave repercussions for online activism and data privacy.
Monsanto is seeking the release of all lobby documents, emails, correspondence and notes “without limitation”, where the firm or its herbicide ingredient glyphosate have been mentioned.
Avaaz says this would include personal information about its employees, as well as the email addresses of more than four million signatories to petitions against Monsanto’s GM and glyphosate policies.
Emma Ruby-Sachs, the group’s deputy director told the Guardian that if it was successful, Monsanto’s suit would have a “chilling effect” on the group’s activism.
“Our staff are already unsure about what to write down – and what not to write down,” she said. “Our parters are nervous that anything they say to us could be turned over.
“Our members are writing to us saying that they’re afraid their data will be handed over. We are doing our best not to let it slow us down but at the end of the day, there is now this scary cloud hanging over our organisation.”
A victory for Monsanto in today’s hearing would cost the online advocacy group thousands of person-hours of work time, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Avaaz’s lawyers.
It could even raise the prospect of a migration out of online activism by campaigners concerned about corporate surveillance, they fear.
But Monsanto argues that it is merely following standard procedure to uncover links between Avaaz and non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL) sufferers in a separate lawsuit.
Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice president for global strategy said the firm had itself complied with court orders to release 10m documents in the past, and called claims that it was seeking personal information on Avaaz employees “completely false”.
“If they wish to redact email addresses or personal information that gives an individual concern, I’m open to that,” he told the Guardian. “This is not an effort to intimidate individuals or make them think their personal information is going to be used by Monsanto.”
“This [subpoena] is directed entirely at the coordinated campaign between Avaaz and the plaintiff’s lawyers, spreading misinformation about the safety of glyphosate, or characterising it as being a carcinogen.”
The subpoena was issued in a case against Monsanto by Ronald Peterson and Jeff Hall, who claim they contracted NHL through exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller, in which glyphosate is an active ingredient.
“We have never spoken to the plaintiff’s lawyers,” Ruby-Sachs said. “We didn’t even know this case existed until we got the subpoena. I’m 100% confident of that, as we had to look it up and it took a while to figure out what it was.”
Monsanto’s documents request calls for the release of all communications between Avaaz and the plaintiffs’ counsel, lawyers, and law firms. But it also seeks disclosure of all communications – “in the broadest possible meaning” – with governments, NGOs, public relations and advertising firms.
It likewise demands all documents Avaaz employees have created, maintained, received, sent or copied, where these involve discussion about glyphosate, Monsanto, or the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which found glyphosate to probably be carcinogenic.
An exhaustive list of communication forms, from telegrams to power point presentations, is listed in the subpoena.
Monsanto filed its request shortly after a bitter EU regulatory battle ended with its license for glyphosate – the core ingredient in Roundup – being extended by just five years, rather than the 15 years originally sought by the European commission.
As the issue was debated, the firm found itself dogged by allegationsemerging from the Monsanto Papers – unsealed documents from a US lawsuit that led to a hearing in the European parliament. The allegations were ultimately dismissed by the commission, which declared Roundup to be safe.
This was one front in a campaign that Avaaz contributed to with a 2 million-strong petition. The group’s lawyers argue that the Peterson and Hall case is being used as “a pretext” for Monsanto to obtain access to private information about Avaaz’s EU campaign strategy.
Monsanto though maintains that it is waging a battle for fair disclosure. “We are only asking Avaaz to be as open and transparent as we have been,” Partridge said.