Last week, a company won a ruling in a Hamilton court that the Internet community in Canada in watching closely.
Philip Services Corp. is a company that employs about 14,000 people in Canada, the U.S. and Europe in industrial services and metals recovery. Last year, they had sales of more than $1 billion.
What has happened is not new, but is certainly the first time a large company has taken action of this kind.
Some messages were posted to an online chat group by individuals who defamed the company.
Philips says the messages go beyond the bounds of criticizing company policy and they contain ethnic slurs directed at co-founders Allen and Philip Fracassi; threats of violence against several senior Philip executives; and denigrate senior female executives.
In a U.S. court as well as the one in Hamilton, Philips asked the court to order Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to reveal the true identities of the users who were posting the messages.
The court complied and ordered several Canadian ISPs, including PSINet (formerly iStar), to provide detailed contact information.
But it didn't stop there. The court also ordered the ISPs to turn over any messages that the user may have sent.
This proceeding was performed without input from the ISPs.
The ISPs turned over the information and Philips then launched a libel suit against these individuals, both in Canada and the U.S.
The Internet community quickly complained that privacy was being violated ... how dare a court demand personal information?
However, they are absolutely wrong.
The courts did the proper thing. This is not a privacy issue.
While various tools on the Internet may allow you to use an alias when communicating, when that tool is used to break the law, you should not assume you are guaranteed anonymity.
Just the opposite. You should be prepared to take responsibility for your actions.
Privacy issues on the Internet come into play when a company takes personal information from you either without your knowledge and/or sells the information or uses it in a way it was not intended.
ISPs for example, should not post their complete client list with all the personal information on a Web page for the world to view.
That is very different than an ISP providing information under subpoena or a court order as is the case here.
And as for essentially tapping a users e-mail, it happens every day with phone lines, why not e-mail? Under a court order, Bell will tap your phone and record everything. Is e-mail not similar?
As an ISP, I have no desire to guarantee you protection nor anonymity for illegal acts. In fact, we go out of our way to co-operate with the police and the laws of Canada. Attempting to hide behind the screen of "privacy" is not valid.
Don't lose sight of the fact that a law has been broken. If it had been the identities of the users of a website containing child pornography, everyone would be screaming that the information should be turned over immediately and all further messages tapped and used to prosecute the offender to the fullest extend of the law.
The fact that this is a civil matter and not criminal should not matter. Our laws must be respected and upheld.
Cyberspace can not be allowed to be a "no-law" land.