Friday, April 16, 2010

There’s almost no anonymity on the Internet

There’s a story developing in Halifax that could have long-range consequences for those who choose to post anonymously on the Internet, myself included. My rule-of-thumb has always been is that as long as you stay away from libel, slander and defamation of character, there is no reason you should not be permitted to post anonymously. That rule apparently has been broken in Halifax. Contributors to a website maintained by the Coast newspaper allegedly crossed that line in a discussion involving some members of the regional fire department. Lawyers for two members of the fire service went to court asking that the identities of those who had posted the material be made public. The judge told Google Inc. to give up information about a person who had used a G-mail account to disseminate allegedly defamatory information about senior fire officials and she 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. While the case itself will play out in the court, the larger question is with regard to online freedom of expression and the dampening effect that this case could have. There are many valid and legitimate reasons people choose to post anonymously on the Internet; if they are forced to argue those reasons in a public forum, then the anonymity becomes a moot point. 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.” An important thing to remember the next time you decide to pen a few words in cyberspace. Scribe beware!

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