In late March 2016, a California federal judge asked both Google, Inc. and Oracle America, Inc. to voluntarily consent to a ban against Internet and social media research on empaneled or prospective jurors until the conclusion of the trial.

The case at issue is Oracle America, Inc. v. Google, Inc., a long-standing copyright infringement suit in which Oracle claims Google’s Android platform infringed various Oracle copyrights. This “high-profile lawsuit” has been making its way through the courts since 2010. Before the voir dire commenced in the current proceedings before the Northern District of California, Judge William Alsup realized that the parties intended to “scrub” Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media sites to gain personal information about the potential jurors.

In response to this realization, Judge Alsup issued an order asking the parties to voluntarily refrain from searching the Internet and social media accounts for personal information about the empaneled or prospective jurors prior to the verdict. While Judge Alsup stated that it was within the discretion of the court to order a complete ban, the court stopped short of issuing an outright ban.

Despite his objections to Internet research, Judge Alsup accepted the premise that social media and Internet searches of jurors are useful to attorneys. Information pulled from these searches can help attorneys during the voir dire process. For example, attorneys can use this personal information strategically while exercising their preemptory challenges or can rely on personal information about a potential juror to support a for-cause removal. Even during the trial, ongoing searches of social media sites can shed light on whether a juror gives or receives commentary about the case.

Despite the potential benefits, however, Judge Alsup issued three reasons in support of restricting these Internet searches.

  • First, if jurors knew that attorneys had conducted Internet searches of them, jury members would be more likely to stray from the Court’s admonition not to conduct Internet searches about the case. Because this high-profile case has been widely discussed in the media, the court warned of an “unusually strong need” to prevent jury members from conducting Internet searches.
  • Second, if attorneys learn of personal information about jury members from social media websites, they may be tempted to make personal appeals during arguments and witness interrogations in an attempt to pander to a jury member’s interests. The court warned that this behavior was out of bounds.
  • Third, the privacy of the jury members should be protected. Judge Alsup noted that empaneled or prospective jurors are not “celebrities,” “public figures,” or “a fantasy team composed by consultants.” Because jurors are citizens willing to serve their country and bear the burden of deciding disputes, Judge Alsup emphasized that their privacy matters.

In his order, Judge Alsup referenced Formal Opinion No. 466 from the American Bar Association. This formal opinion held that it is ethical, under certain restrictions, for attorneys to conduct Internet searches on prospective jurors. The ABA determined that a “passive review” of a juror’s website or social media page (i.e., a review that does not make an “access request” and of which the juror is unaware) is not considered an ex parte communication with jurors. Judge Alsup noted, however, that just because these searches are not unethical does not mean that attorneys have an inalienable right to perform these searches.

According to Judge Alsup’s order, if the parties do not voluntarily agree to refrain from Internet and social media searches, they will have to abide by certain rules during the jury selection process. First, the attorneys will be required inform the jury pool upfront about the nature of their searches prior to jury selection. Also, once the attorneys have made this announcement, they will then have to allow the potential jurors a few minutes to adjust their social media privacy settings on their mobile devices.

In short, the judge’s order emphasized the court’s “reverential respect” for juries, asking the attorneys to refrain from performing Internet and social media searches for jurors’ personal information until the trial is over.