Suggestion draws the ire of 1,000 CBC web readers
Charlottetown Liberal MP Shawn Murphy has created a firestorm of controversy with his press release warning people about anonymous comments on the internet. CBC’s coverage of the press release and subsequent musing by CBC executive Jeff Kay got more than 1,000 comments on CBC’s website. The majority the comments denounced both Murphy and CBC for the suggestion anonymous comments were wrong and should be curtailed.
MP Murphy has tried to explain himself in a followup blog entry which he also posted on Facebook. He apparently has found a friendlier crowd on Facebook with most comments supporting the need to limit the “climate of back-handed attack created by anonymous commentators” as one FB comment said.
Murphy’s press release and CBC interview points out that some court decisions have forced websites to disclose who those anonymous people are. That is true: there is some backlash against pure free expression; however, it’s not free expression the court is curtailing.
Why should people identify themselves? They are only going to suffer retribution on PEI or other places where there is no political freedom. If people don’t vote the right way they can lose their job here. If they even hint they don’t agree, they get blacklisted. In Iran you get shot for being a dissident. What’s the dividing line? Do we promote freedom of anonymous speech in foreign countries but not at home?
People need to speak out. Anonymous blogging is part of the Internet and is part of free speech. You can always go to court and get their identity disclosed if there is a prima facia case of defamation.
If you’re a politician, you need to develop a thick skin. Politicians have a reputation of looking out for themselves. Any call for less free speech is disingenuous on the part of politicians, who usually have something to hide.
“You are right this does happen on PEI,” says Rob Paterson on Facebook, “But then how do we stop all the mad ranting that prevents discourse?”
Free speech includes mad rants as well as opinions we consider “reasoned”. Free expression is not meant to be convenient and comfortable.
I’ve been attacked and it doesn’t feel nice but people are talking about people whether it hits the internet or not. One of my clients told me once “I hope you don’t think people just say nice things behind your back!”
The internet is just another part of the conversation we all have. There are people with very ugly, bigoted and prejudiced points of view. Letting them vent is closer to the truth about society than pretending they don’t exist.
I will admit it took me several years to get used to the conversations that are carried on in the name of free speech. One can always chose not to read, listen or watch. (The conversation is carried on FB)
Anonymity is a central core belief of the Internet.
“Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy. Freedom of expression promotes certain societal values, as noted by Professor Emerson in 1963: “Maintenance of a system of free expression is necessary (1) as assuring individual self-fulfillment, (2) as a means of attaining the truth, (3) as a method of securing participation by the members of the society in social, including political, decision-making, and (4) as maintaining the balance between stability and change in society.” Our constitutional commitment to free speech is predicated on the belief that a free society cannot function with coercive legal censorship in the hands of persons supporting one ideology who are motivated to use the power of the censor to suppress opposing viewpoints.” Constitutional Law of Canada
Defamation on the internet
In the cases Murphy references, the petitioner had to establish some case for defamation. Merely getting the name of the commenter does not mean they will be successful in a defamation lawsuit. Lawsuits for defamation are generally a waste of time in Canada and the US since the plaintiff has to first prove the defamation to which the defendant has several defenses. Then they have to prove monetary damages, another uphill battle. Rarely does anyone but the lawyers benefit from awards. Most lawyers will tell their clients to ignore their hurt feelings and not bring more attention to the statements than necessary.
What people don’t realize is that as soon as they sue someone over a specific allegation that they consider defamation, the media and the internet are free to repeat the defamatory statement over and over, since it forms part of the statement of claim. Mike Masnick of TechDirt calls this the Streisand Effect.
“The Streisand effect is a primarily online phenomenon in which an attempt to censor or remove a piece of information has the unintended consequence of causing the information to be publicized widely and to a greater extent than would have occurred if no censorship had been attempted.” Wikipedia
The Law and Anonymity
Comments on the internet are protected by the Charter and the concept of free expression, which is central to western democracy. We need discourse, no matter how unpleasant it may sound to our ears. Not every opinion will be kind, considerate and flatter our own.
“The recent Ontario Divisional Court decision in Warman v. Fournier,1 set a significant Internet law precedent by ruling that the identity of an anonymous Internet user will not be automatically disclosed to a plaintiff in civil litigation, even though the information is in the possession of a named defendant,” wrote Wendy Matheson and Natalie Biderman of Torys LLP (Internet and e-Commerce Law in Canada, Michael Geist, editor) “The decision confirmed that identity information should only be disclosed when the plaintiff’s claim is legitimate and after a consideration of the public interests at stake.”
As a lawyer himself, Shawn Murphy knows the law is much more subtle than his warning and threatening Press Release.
By Stephen Pate, NJN Network