Anonymity On The Web
Such action was tried when I first started Blogging as a deliberate effort to either close me down early on or to discredit my site. I would have none of it.
Accordingly, I chose NOT to allow people to comment but invited them to email me and I would post what they wrote provided that it was "acceptable" legally. I thought that this was a good compromise.
It is soooo easy to find out who they are in most cases if I wanted to do so. This court case should help explain and be a warning as well. Its reasoning goes well beyond newspaper sites:
- Watch what you say: Court orders newspaper to identify anonymous commentators
A Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge says Internet anonymity shouldn't be a shield for legal actions and has ordered a newspaper and Google Inc. to provide the identities of people who posted comments about Halifax's top firefighters.
The newspaper and Google said they would comply.
Fire Chief Bill Mosher and Deputy Chief Stephen Thurber are considering a defamation lawsuit against people who posted comments they say were defamatory on the website of the Coast, a weekly alternative newspaper.
The comments were in a discussion forum hosted by the Coast and were related to stories published in the paper about racism in the fire department. No defamation suit is being contemplated about the articles themselves.
The firefighters are also considering a lawsuit against the author of emails sent through a Gmail account.
Justice Heather Robertson of Nova Scotia Supreme Court swiftly granted the uncontested application Wednesday, noting the Internet shouldn't provide any cover from legal actions.
Robertson said the court doesn't "condone the conduct of anonymous Internet users who make defamatory comments."
"They, like other people, have to be accountable for their actions."
Robertson cited an Ontario Superior Court of Justice decision last year where Bell Canada and Rogers were ordered to provide to York University identifying information of anonymous people who allegedly wrote defamatory emails.
The editor of the Coast, Kyle Shaw, said comments were taken off the website as soon as Mosher's lawyers informed the paper that the fire chief found them offensive and defamatory. An apology was also posted on the site.
Shaw said the paper will comply with the court order and provide the names and email addresses, as well as any Internet protocol addresses - identifying numbers for the Internet connections to a computer - once it receives a formal request from the firefighters' lawyer.
A lawyer for Google has said the company will also comply with the court order to provide information about a person using the Gmail address.
Shaw, the 37-year-old co-founder of the Coast, says while he's willing to provide the identities, he won't change a policy that allows people to remain anonymous while posting their views on the website.
He said the policy allows other commentators to notify website editors if inappropriate comments are made, and that editors can then decide whether to remove the comment.
"We have a free-wheeling and wide-ranging and topically open conversation on our site. It doesn't mean it's wide open. It doesn't mean we don't ban people," he said outside court.
"We don't want to have to check every comment."
Having to monitor every comment would require more resources and reduce the rapid flow of comments, Shaw said.
"It's the manpower, it's the timeliness. What would the manpower be? You'd have to have lawyers on staff," he said.
"This is why we have mechanisms in place encouraging the community to raise flags when they see problems."
He said he views the Internet as a unique medium, where comments flow more freely and self-regulation is the norm. He said his staff carefully vet letters to the editor for the newspaper because they are more permanent and difficult to remove if objections are raised.
But Michelle Awad, the lawyer for the firefighters, said her clients consider the online posts to be serious enough to warrant a libel action.
"The reputations of the applicants are worthy of protection ... They're seeking to procure a remedy for the damage that they believe has been done," she said.
She has said she believes the case raises important ethical issues for the media on a widespread policy allowing anonymous and unvetted commentary.
Most of Canada's largest media outlets allow people to post comments under aliases, but there are varying policies on whether each comment is seen before it is posted.
Jeff Keay, a spokesman for the CBC, said the public broadcaster allows anonymous comments on their website, but every post is viewed by a staff member and can be referred to for legal review if necessary.
Many other news websites allow people to post comments without oversight, and only remove them after complaints are registered with a website editor.
Kenny Yum, editor of globeandmail.com, said the site moderates postings that readers flag as inappropriate.
"We review thousands of them every month," he said in an email. "We have clear guidelines and every reader is asked to register with us before they are allowed to comment."
Yum said the decision in Nova Scotia doesn't change the Globe and Mail's stance on website comments as "we based our policy on industry-best practices, which have evolved through the years."