Philip Services Corp. has been granted 12 court orders to obtain names of critics who have posted negative comments on the Internet.
The cases are certain to have a chilling effect on the hundreds of investors who post messages daily to chat groups discussing the pros and cons of numerous publicly traded companies. Most of the discussions are conducted using pseudonyms, and Philip is believed to be the first Canadian company to obtain an identity from an Internet access provider through a court order.
John Gallagher, who has posted messages about Hamilton-based Philip on the Internet, said yesterday that he was not informed that Philip was seeking his name until after the information was released by his Internet provider, Weslink Datalink Corp. of Hamilton.
Weslink provided the information to Philip yesterday morning after being served with a court order signed by Mr. Justice Nicholas Borkovich of the Ontario Court's General Division in Hamilton.
"I didn't know that was happening. I wasn't in any position to offer any opinion", Mr. Gallagher said yesterday. "It was blindsiding."
Philip is pursuing similar cases with numerous other Internet access providers.
Nadir Desai, chief executive officer of the Canadian subsidiary of PsiNet Inc. of Herndon, Va., said he could not discuss continuing legal action involving Philip because his company's case has not yet been resolved. But Mr. Desai said PsiNet will pursue the case in the courts.
"We're wandering into uncharted territory here", he said. "This is something that the legal system has to work through, because never before has this type of technology been involved to do what one person might consider to be abusive and another person might consider to be freedom of speech."
Philip's action follows months of comment, criticism, and speculation about the industrial waste recycling company posted on the Yahoo Inc. message board by investors and others watching the company. Philip has struggled with losses of $126.3-million (U.S.), a copper trading scandal, and the departure of most of its senior managers.
Philip spokeswoman Lynda Kuhn said the company warned offending writers on the Internet in June that it would pursue legal action if they didn't stop making what the company considers defamatory comments about Philip.
"We've been quite clear that there obviously is absolute entitlement to freedom of speech and people are free to criticize any company and discuss the company and its performance", she said. "But when it gets to the point of out-and-out defamation, stalking, ethnic slurs, forms of sexual harassment, it's going beyond anything that's acceptable."
Although the messages have been posted on a message board maintained by Yahoo Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., Philip has turned to Internet access providers to find out the identities of posters.
Philip initially received an order on June 27 requiring Weslink to turn over the name of an anonymous poster, but the order was granted ex parte, which means neither Weslink nor the writer was represented in court by a lawyer.
Weslink had the order amended at a July 7 hearing, but was compelled to release the name to Philip.
Weslink said in a statement yesterday that it treats client information confidentially and said it only releases data when served with a court order.
The company said it notified Mr. Gallagher as soon as it was legally allowed to do so under the terms of the court order, and did not comply with the original order until it had some of the terms amended.
For example, the original order did not allow Weslink to tell Mr. Gallagher at any time that his name had been provided to Philip. The second order allowed Weslink to notify him after his name was given to Philip.
In the order seeking information from Weslink, Philip lists 26 Internet names it is trying to identify. Three of the aliases belong to Mr. Gallagher, a former Hamilton city councillor who has been involved in public disputes over pollution in Hamilton harbour and other issues.
The only writer identified by name on the list is Paul Palango, a freelance journalist who has had a history of legal disputes with Philip. Mr. Palango, a former editor at The Globe and Mail, said yesterday that he has posted to the Yahoo site under his real name and has not used an alias.
Mr. Palango said he doesn't know why Philip is pursuing the court order against himself and other chat group writers, and said he doesn't know what Philip plans to do with the information.
"One has to wonder what's going on at Philip when they have all the problems they have, and they're attacking selected aliases on the Internet and spending all this energy on it", he said.
Mr. Palango said he believes most of the Internet chat has been fair comment about the company's problems, and has not been libellous.
Mr. Gallagher said he chose to make his postings anonymously because he was concerned about repercussions in Hamilton and because he believed he was being followed by someone who might pose a threat to his physical safety.