The Ottawa Sun
Friday, July 24, 1998

PSINet fights for 'anonymity'

by Rob Hall,

Last week my column was about the case of Philip Services Corp. going to court in an attempt to sue individuals for libel.

Philip Services maintains that they had been defamed in various online chat groups.

However, the individuals were using aliases as is typical online. Thus, the Hamilton court ordered that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) involved turn over information as to the real identities of the individuals.

Additionally, it required the ISP to turn over any "messages" that customer sent or received that the ISP had in its possession.

Yesterday, PSINet announced that it intended to challenge the order on behalf of its wholly owned subsidiary iStar Internet, which it bought a few months ago.

PSI has filed a motion with the court that attempts to prevent Philip Services from using the information it disclosed. You see, PSI had already turned over all of the information. Now it is having second thoughts.

In the announcement, Bryan Boyd, a vice-president of PSI, states: "We want to assure our customers that all of iSTAR's information about their accounts is treated as private and confidential and is not disclosed to anyone outside iSTAR, in the absence of a legal requirement to disclose or without appropriate steps to assure its confidential treatment", and "In this case, the court had determined that there is good cause to override our customers' expectations of anonymity."

Expectations of anonymity? Since when does an ISP guarantee anonymity. While I agree that an ISP should protect the privacy of its clients, I do not agree that the ISP should provide anonymity to its clients no matter what actions the client takes.

There have been various anonymous servers in the past 10 years that cropped up around the world. They have virtually all been shut down because of the tendency of abuse and criminal activity from their users.

To make matters worse, William L. Schrader, CEO of PSI, states "worldwide, PSINet is committed to protecting the privacy and confidentiality of our customers. When a company attempts to use the judicial system to compromise that privacy, PSINet intends to take a stand ..."

A stand against what? Turning over information to a Canadian court to aid in the prosecution of illegal activity? This is a very different situation than someone walking in off the street and demanding information.

A court has ruled, after being presented with evidence, that this information must be supplied. This is not an abuse by the company of the judicial system. Just the opposite. The firm is doing what is should under Canadian law to resolve the situation.

It seems that PSI may be shooting themselves in the foot. It has long been the stance of ISPs to attempt to be thought of as "carriers" of information, much like the phone companies.

Imagine if each time the police went to Bell with a warrant for information and to tap a phone line, Bell notified the client prior to installing the tap and turning over the information. I suspect the police would have a hard time getting the information they require.

PSI has also urged other ISPs do stand with them and develop a unified policy or to help shape a legislative solution. The Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) will be discussing this very action at their board meeting next Thursday. I suspect PSI will stand alone in their stance against the justice system.

Users should, and must, be held responsible for their actions. Canadian law must be upheld. Anything less will cause rampant fraud and other illegal activity on the Internet as well as driving away legitimate business such as electronic commerce.

Copyright © 1998 by The Ottawa Sun. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.