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Firefighters given IDs of online critics Add to ...

Two Halifax firefighters can now pursue libel suits after their lawyer received the names of anonymous commentators who criticized them on the website of a weekly newspaper.

Michelle Awad, the attorney for Halifax fire chief Bill Mosher and deputy chief Stephen Thurber, said Monday she has the information she needs to find and sue the commentators from the Coast newspaper's website.

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"We have information that identifies individuals. So it's no longer an anonymous person or an e-mail address that doesn't necessarily specify the person's name," she said.

Ms. Awad applied for the identities of the online commentators in a series of court appearances.

The first step was on April 14, when Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Heather Robertson ordered Coast Publishing Ltd. to provide identifying information about the commentators, who used online names like "scandalous 2010" or "LessTalkMore Action."

Ms. Robertson said during the hearing that the court doesn't "condone the conduct of anonymous Internet users who make defamatory comments."

Her order made it clear that online critics can't keep their identities secret.

The Coast complied, providing e-mail addresses and Internet protocol addresses - identifying numbers for the Internet connections to a computer.

Ms. Awad then obtained a second court order that required Internet service providers BellAliant and Eastlink to provide full addresses and names based on the computer addresses.

The firefighters are still awaiting identifying information from Eastlink for a person who used a Gmail account provided by Google. Ms. Awad said she expects that by the end of the week.

She said her clients have a year to decide whether they'll launch a libel lawsuit.

In the meantime, she said she's pleased the courts responded quickly and that the message is being sent that anonymity isn't guaranteed.

"I think our court was very responsive and has continued to be so as the further steps of this matter have been required," she said.

"People can't defame others on the Internet or otherwise with impunity. They need to understand they will be found out."

However, she said having to go through the various steps was expensive and time consuming for her clients.

The case has helped fuel a debate on whether news sites should permit anonymous, unmonitored comments to be posted on discussion forums they host.

The comments that upset the two firefighters appeared in a forum about alleged racism in the department.

Kyle Shaw, the co-founder of the Coast, has said that 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.

He said it creates a free-wheeling and wide-ranging debate that his newspaper fears would be stifled by constant supervision.

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