In a Canadian court ruling that may impose new limits on some online discussions, an Ontario-based recycling company attacked by pseudonymous critics on an Internet message board has succeeded in unmasking several of its cyberantagonists.
While the company, Philip Services Corp., has not yet sued for libel, it contends that it has been defamed by comments posted in a finance forum on Yahoo, a popular World Wide Web site. Last month, a court in Toronto ruled for the company, ordering 12 Internet service providers to turn over the names of subscribers who used aliases in expressing their often-vituperative opinions. At least one Internet service provider complied with the order last week.
Recent Internet postings about Philip included personal attacks on its executives, with racial slurs and threats, said Lynda Kuhn, a company spokeswoman.
"A couple of posters began making remarks and all of a sudden it was open season", Ms. Kuhn said. "We believe that laws that apply to any form of communication should also apply to this one."
The case underscores the fact most Internet communications are not truly anonymous. Although many Internet service providers have policies protecting the privacy of their subscribers, they have frequently turned over records, including subscribers' real names, to law enforcement authorities. Some critics said the ruling could have a chilling effect on Internet communication, at least in Canada.
Indeed the ruling has set off a heated debate about the balance between anonymity and accountability.
In an editorial on the case on Monday, The Toronto Globe and Mail cited émile Zola's defense of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French Army falsely accused of treason, in urging Internet users to remember that "a real name adds conviction, credibility and moral authority to a denunciation."
"Libel is still libel, even on the World Wide Web", the editorial said.
Based in Hamilton on the west end of Lake Ontario, Philip has had a hard few months. A copper trading scandal and the departure of many of its senior managers have contributed to a recent steep drop in its stock.
Many of the Internet critics insist they were simply relaying important information that the company would rather not have had publicized. One participant on Monday pointedly posted a quote from a former Canadian Prime Minister on the Canadian Bill of Rights: "I am a Canadian, free to speak without fear."
Legal experts said one question posed by the case was whether anonymous accusations carried enough weight to be considered defamatory. That may become more important as Internet users realize that the anonymity they have now is by no means ironclad.
"The Constitution protects anonymous speech, but that doesn't matter if Internet service providers don't provide it", said Mike Godwin, author of "Cyber Rights", published last month by Random House.
If consumers demanded it, Godwin said, technology now available, that would provide true anonymity so that service providers would have no information to turn over, even if ordered to do so by a court, would be more widely used.
John Gallagher, 49, an active poster on the Yahoo board whose identity was made known to Philip last week by his service provider, Weslink Datalink, said he felt justified in using an alias. A former Hamilton City Council Representative, Gallagher said he had been publicly involved in various controversies and wanted to protect his privacy.
"People have a right to know what this company is doing", Gallagher said. But he agreed that the pseudonymous communication allowed the discussion at times to become "aggressive."