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Nova Scotia firefighters ask court to identify anonymous Internet critics

Mon, 04/12/2010 - 1:30pm
Michael Tutton-Associated Press

Two of Halifax's most senior firefighters are asking Nova Scotia's Supreme Court to reveal the names of people who posted anonymous comments on a weekly newspaper's website that they say defamed them.

Fire Chief Bill Mosher and Deputy Chief Stephen Thurber will be in court on Wednesday in a bid to know the identities of people who posted personal criticisms of them on the website of the Coast following stories on racism in the department.

They have filed an application for an order that, if approved, would require the Coast to identify seven people who posted comments from April 2009 to March 20 of this year.

Michelle Awad, the lawyer for the firefighters, says it's the latest legal example of how the Internet — once a haven for anonymity — provides no cover in libel actions, and in fact may even increase costs for defendants.

Awad says if a lawsuit were to proceed, it's conceivable that the newspaper and those who made the comments would have to pay for the added costs of the legal steps necessary to identify the online posters.

"It's in the mix of the things the courts would learn about in cost submissions," she said.

"If people were identified right on the website then this step in the process that we're engaged in now would not be necessary."

The writers posted under aliases such as "scandalous2010," ''The truth," and "LessTalkMoreAction."

The firefighters are also requesting that Google Inc. identify someone with a Gmail account who sent what Awad called a "broadly circulated" email that they allege was defamatory.

Kyle Shaw, the editor of The Coast, said the newspaper has the names and emails of the letter writers and intends to provide them if the judge orders their release.

He explained that people who post comments are required to register and provide their names and email addresses.

He said the newspaper doesn't review the posts before they're put on the site.

"We rely on other readers and commentators to flag other comments that seem over the line in terms of our comments policy," he said.

Shaw said the offending comments in the firefighting story were removed as soon as the lawyer for the firefighters contacted the newspaper.

Awad said her clients hope that the case will remind people who post comments online that they are just as liable for their actions as they are when writing signed letters to newspapers.

"I suspect if people are going to have to stand behind what they say, there's a hope that they'll be more careful," she said.

Dean Jobb, an associate professor of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, said there's a growing movement in the media to reconsider anonymity on the Internet.

The media has a wide variety of policies requiring various amounts of moderation and identification of people who post comments online, said Jobb.

He said it's time that newspapers with websites reconsider their policies on anonymity.

"I think there'd be less abuse," he said.

"I've heard the argument the Internet is a different approach and people are more strident and a little more blunt in their assessment ... It's a way to bring more traffic to your site. But what kind of traffic are you bringing?

"If you look at comments after some articles, it's embarrassing."

Shaw said there are no immediate plans at the Coast to change the policy of allowing anonymity on his publication's website.

"A huge percentage of our comments and complaints are dealt with by the audience and dealt with quickly. This case is far more the exception than the rule."

He said vetting every comment would mean, "the conversation wouldn't be as vital. It wouldn't be as strong if we had to get involved in every single comment."

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