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(Jason Logan / For the Globe and Mail)
(Jason Logan / For the Globe and Mail)

VIRAL

Why faceless sniping deserves protection Add to ...

The town common isn't, in its Mayberry conception, a place for shadowy voices. But then, Andy Griffith didn't have the Internet.

And yet, small-town politics have become a crucible for democracy in a most unexpected way. In Aurora, Ont., a pretty town on the northern edge of Toronto's ghastly sprawl, the question of whether anonymous - and sometimes unpleasant - voices have a role in public discourse has come to the fore.

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Pretty as it is, Aurora is no Mayberry. In the years leading up to the last election, its chattering classes became embroiled in a bizarre, unending psychodrama surrounding the new Mayor, Phyllis Morris. There were resignations, oustings and staff departures, though the reasons for each were often obscure.

The ill will between factions, however, was clear and present. It was prosecuted with vigour by all involved, and using whatever tools they had at their disposal. One of the intriguing things was that a good deal of the dissent took place online.

One of the Mayor's nemeses was an 80-year-old councillor who, feeling ignored, started her own blog as an outlet to vent. (The feuding burst into provincial headlines in 2009 when the council turfed out an integrity commissioner who hadn't prosecuted an ethics complaint against the blogging octogenarian.)

Meanwhile, another blog - the Aurora Citizen - became a focal point for roiling discontent with the Mayor. Its editors were anonymous, though in the small-town setting people made an open secret of the editors' supposed identities. Its comment threads filled up with commentary, complaint and calls-to-action, some written under real names; other commentary was written anonymously.

It was shortly before the 2010 mayoral election that Ms. Morris launched a $6-million defamation suit against three locals who were suspected of moderating the website, as well as their lawyer, and the website's host. Ms. Morris wanted the named parties to cough up the real identities of three anonymous commenters - the ones who wrote the allegedly defamatory posts - so they could be sued for defamation as well.

The Mayor and many of her council allies were ejected from office in the election. The suit, however, went on.

It was just this week that a ruling by the Ontario Superior Court stuck a dagger in it, refusing to order that the identities of the anonymous commenters be revealed.

Part of the reason had to do with Ms. Morris's suit itself: True to the maddeningly vague nature of Auroran animosity, her filing pointed toward blog posts and comments, but didn't specify exactly which sections were supposed to be damaging or untrue.

(This led the judge to acidly wonder whether she was supposed to suss out the offending parts "by divination or divine inspiration.")

However, there was a larger point at play here: The ruling reinforces the idea that there should be a high bar for unmasking online commentators. Among other factors, courts are now considering whether these commentators have a reasonable expectation of anonymity, and whether the public interest in disclosing a commenter's identity outweighs the interests of free expression and the right to privacy. This is all the more true in the case of public officials, who on one hand wield power, and on the other should be better prepared than private citizens for criticism.

The fact that courts are thinking long and hard about whether privacy should be stripped from anonymous commenters should serve as a deterrent for piqued politicians who think they've found an easy way to unmask their critics. The ruling hardly guarantees online privacy in the future: The federal Conservatives are pondering "lawful access" legislation that would require Internet service providers to cough up identifying information to law-enforcement agencies without a court order. All the same, the Ontario Superior Court ruling is a step in the right direction.

Anonymous commenting is not, needless to say, a beloved form of cultural production.

In fact, it's tempting to get ahead by trashing anonymity: Facebook has made inroads by offering its commenting system to blogs, on the premise that a comments section that uses real names will be better than one that doesn't. Similarly, Google's new social network, Google+, has drummed up some unwelcome publicity this week by enforcing a real-names-only policy with a bit too much zeal, deleting offenders' accounts.

But the Aurora saga is a case in point: Anonymity has its purposes. It's easy to cite the example of foreign dissidents under the rule of truly unpleasant rulers. But local governance offers another context for discretion.

One of the key points of contention in Aurora was how town staff were treated by political leaders. It's a given in our system of government that staff need to stay neutral, and never, ever criticize their elected bosses in public. This need not be a matter of either leaks or whistle-blowing - the consideration of the public interest would shift in either of those cases - but of simple political expression. They're but one group for whom the Internet offers an anonymous outlet.

Every town is a small town. Even the biggest of cities break down into small circles in which everyone knows everyone, and in which political expression can have personal and professional consequences, within the bureaucracy or without.

We are still wedded to the idea of democracy as a contest of ideas, forthrightly stated by individuals bold enough to step up and stand behind their statements. But it's worth remembering that for every anonymous weasel in a political forum, there's a considerate citizen with an opinion that needs shelter to be voiced. Shadowed figures have a place in our public lives: It's a protection worth protecting.

 

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