Matt Malone is an assistant professor at the Thompson Rivers University’s Faculty of Law and a contributor to the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
In the digital era, doxing – the practice of publishing someone’s private personal information without their consent – is the internet’s pre-eminent ad hominem attack. Of all the precedents being normalized in recent years that degrade public discourse and discourage participation in politics, doxing is the most disquieting one. As a tactic of intimidation, it sets the stage for the worst kinds of vigilantism and violence. During the so-called “freedom convoy” of 2022, the use of this tactic became all too common.
All sides are guilty. In late January, as the convoy made its way to Ottawa, the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons warned MPs about being doxed, after online solicitations by convoy protesters for their personal information. Days later, an Access to Information Act request sought the names and badge numbers of RCMP officers who participated in the enforcement actions at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont.
Towing companies were reluctant to co-operate with law enforcement for fear of being doxed by truckers. And, according to intelligence reports, a former member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s security detail who disagreed with the federal government’s vaccine mandates may have leaked the Prime Minister’s private schedule some months before the protest.
On the other hand, there was little hesitation from those who opposed the convoy to publish and disseminate the private personal information of the truckers and their sympathizers. Efforts such as the @ottawaconvoyreport on Instagram and crowdsourced mapping sites made doxing a community effort. Various media outlets got on board, using the hacked personal information of donors to the GiveSendGo-hosted fundraiser to identify individuals and draw inferences about their donations.
In September, CBC even felt it worthwhile to compare the hacked data to donations to the Conservative Party’s leadership race – without any explanation about why it was newsworthy or in the public interest to do so.
Each of these instances reckoned with the reality that doxing can be, at times, justified in the public interest. There are instances where it is vital for the public to know otherwise private information. But in our divided and polarized environment, presuming when the non-consensual disclosure of private personal information is in the public interest and when it is not (including when it should result in legal action or punishment) is the problem.
As national and international security expert Stephanie Carvin recently highlighted, we live in a splintered mediasphere with self-contained information ecosystems. These ecosystems’ competing views of the public interest dictate when it is appropriate to dox.
Unlike in some earlier eras, public opinion is deeply divided on issues like these today. In 1970, the federal government invoked the War Measures Act with the support of 87 per cent of Canadians, including 86 per cent of francophones, according to a Gallup poll done at the time. By contrast, days before the Emergencies Act was invoked in February, 2022, an Ipsos poll found almost half of Canadians said they “may not agree with everything the people who have taken part in the truck protests in Ottawa have said, but their frustration is legitimate and worthy of our sympathy.”
Since then, polls have oscillated. In May, an Angus Reid poll showed that support for the invocation of the Emergencies Act had dipped to just 46 per cent. After compelling testimony last month from Mr. Trudeau, it bounced back up. On any given day, Canadians are far less united in their view of the matter than they were in 1970.
The convoy protests showed us that, in these disagreements, we are increasingly willing to weaponize unscrupulous procedures. We can be more than happy to give a pass to doxing committed by our side, often while criticizing our opponents for doing the exact same thing. And yet, respect for the type of precedent needed to stabilize our institutions and strengthen the rule of law often means honouring the rules for those with whom we disagree most.
This is something far too many of us are unwilling to do.