Rarely known for their civility, online exchanges can degenerate into vicious slanging matches among people hiding behind pseudonyms. But a judge in Halifax has lobbed in a reminder that Internet anonymity has its limits.
After considering for only a few minutes, the judge told Google Inc. to give up information about a person who had used a gmail account to disseminate allegedly defamatory information about senior fire officials.
Madam Justice Heather Robertson of Nova Scotia Supreme Court also ordered The Coast, an alternative weekly, to give up personal information about people who used the newspaper's website to post allegedly defamatory information about the men.
The decision surprised some, because Divisional Court judges in Ottawa are still weighing whether to protect the anonymity of Web posters named in a libel action. In that case, critics have warned about a possible chill in online freedom of expression.
"Once you unmask somebody, you can't put the genie back in the bottle," Ian Kerr, Canada Research Chair in Ethics, Law & Technology at the University of Ottawa, said Wednesday. "Is it good enough to merely make an allegation, or do they have to show [damages]before anyone is unmasked?"
But Judge Robertson saw little to debate.
"You need to identify these individuals who have committed the alleged defamation, and you can't start an action until you know who they are," she said to lawyer Michelle Awad, who is acting for Halifax Fire Chief Bill Mosher and his deputy, Stephen Thurber.
"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."
Ms. Awad said her clients would decide on their next move once they have the identities. The disputed material - which she would not characterize, except to say that it damaged her clients' reputations - relates to Coast stories on racism in the fire department.
Coast editor Kyle Shaw said the paper would hand over names and e-mail addresses of the online commentators.
"The Internet is a world where everything is tracked and people think there's anonymity, but there's almost no anonymity on the Internet," he told reporters. "If anybody thinks it's utterly free and anonymous and untraceable, they are mistaken."
Many other newspapers are grappling with the same issues. Some are trying to discourage anonymity, and others monitor all comments.
"People tend to flag comments they find offensive, I don't think people would catch defamatory comments the same way, so you really have to have editors and reporters involved," said Tim Currie, assistant professor of online journalism at the University of King's College.
Representatives for Google were not in court Wednesday, and neither argued against the order. The paper's editor said it was important to get the judge's clarification of its responsibilities.
"We thought we'd leave it to the judge," Mr. Shaw said. "Are these people who deserve some sort of protection? As ex-members of the Coast community, I do not know their legal standing or my ethical obligation to them."