One of Canada’s wealthiest businessmen is taking Twitter Inc. to task over its role in policing defamatory or hateful speech with a lawsuit at the Supreme Court of British Columbia.
Frank Giustra, whose career has spanned the mining, entertainment and philanthropic worlds, filed a civil claim against Twitter this week in Vancouver over tweets that he alleges have damaged his business and philanthropic relationships. His lawyer, Fred Kozak of Reynolds Mirth Richards & Farmer LLP, said Mr. Giustra hopes to bring positive change to Twitter and other social-media platforms.
While Twitter and other social-media companies such as Facebook view themselves as platforms, Mr. Kozak said, he and his client view them as publishers with a responsibility for the content posted by users. The legal action sheds further light on the increasingly fraught world of policing content on social media. Earlier this month, Ottawa warned that such companies weren’t doing enough to protect Canadian democracy, and threatened to regulate them.
Twitter users often complain that the website will not remove tweets about them that they say are defamatory or threatening. Few have the financial means to take a massive, publicly traded company to court. While Mr. Kozak noted that Twitter recently took steps to better respond to offensive tweets, he hopes the lawsuit will result in a better policy for all users.
“Mr. Giustra’s aim is not in any way to censor thoughts or ideas or legitimate expression – but it does seek to prevent publication of statements which are unlawful for a variety of reasons,” Mr. Kozak said in an interview. “And we think that’s an objective that is not only consistent with society’s benefit, but also ultimately social media’s benefit.”
Twitter declined to comment on Friday. The company has generally taken a more conservative approach than Facebook to banning users and deleting offensive or threatening content. Earlier this month, Facebook banned several Canadian far-right commentators and extremist groups for promoting organized hate; Twitter did not take similar action until a day later, banning only accounts associated with a single white-nationalist group.
Mr. Giustra’s civil claim argues that tweets that began around February, 2015, “vilified the plaintiff for political purposes in relation to the 2016 United States election,” attempting to discredit Mr. Giustra over his charitable work supporting the Clinton Foundation.
The five-page claim includes an appendix with the text of dozens of “false, defamatory, abusive and threatening tweets,” many of which, the claim reads, “Twitter has neglected or refused to remove.” Many tweets associate Mr. Giustra with the widely discredited “pizzagate” conspiracy theory that connected then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to a fictitious child-sex ring.
“The tweets have damaged [Mr. Giustra’s] professional and personal reputation and are likely to bring the plaintiff’s character into disrepute,” the claim reads. Because Twitter has neither removed some of the allegedly defamatory tweets, nor prevented further ones from publication, the claim says, this “has resulted in significant emotional distress and anxiety for the plaintiff and his family.”
Mr. Kozak said that Mr. Giustra took an “incremental approach” to responding to the allegedly defamatory tweets, first flagging them for Twitter to take action, only to find that the company did not remove all of them. Taking action against the dozens of individual users, Mr. Kozak said, would require “endless litigation,” and not address future defamatory tweets. As such, he said, Mr. Giustra decided to take action against Twitter itself.
“We’re hoping that this, and greater government scrutiny and oversight, will lead to positive changes,” Mr. Kozak said.