Besieged Philip Services Corp. has tracked down its anonymous critics on the Internet and former alderman John Gallagher is one of the first identified.
Philip has used courts in Ontario and California to force the hands of Yahoo! and Internet service providers to divulge the names of computer users who post messages using fictitious identities.
An injunction obtained by Philip in a Hamilton court requires the service providers to give names, street addresses, phone numbers, and details of the users' computers.
Gallagher said he has been named by his Internet service provider.
He now finds himself at the centre of a swirling storm of controversy bringing international interest over cyber rights and privacy on the Internet.
Philip has asked several Internet service companies to provide a striking array of information about Internet users who have anonymously slammed the company.
Legal experts contacted in Ottawa claim this is not a precedent, but cyberspace experts like author Jim Carroll say they have never heard anything like it. Carroll, co-writer of the Canadian Internet Handbook, said he was struck by the sweeping nature of the unravelling of subscriber names.
"This is something brand new to me. I've never heard of anything like this in Canada."
For more than a month, Philip has been trying to silence some of its critics who have hidden behind names such as skeptic666, Countbuster, and pepcidonmymind. Philip says the critics, using an electronic message board provided by Yahoo! Inc., have defamed and even threatened company employees.
The industrial-services and metals multinational has been rocked with huge losses, falling stock prices, class-action lawsuits, and allegedly fraudulent actions in its metals division.
"We took steps to gather information and have confirmed the identity of certain subscribers of the defamation", said company official Lynda Kuhn.
"We've also confirmed a number of the aliases are, in fact, one individual. We are not through this process yet so we are being very careful not to carelessly name people at this point."
Asked what Philip intended to do with any names produced by ISPs, Kuhn said the company was "still evaluating what action is appropriate".
She would not say if Philip intended to pursue any libel actions against individuals.
Kuhn said Philip was not interested in dealing with people who are making legitimate comments about the company's operations.
She said Philip has gone after individuals who the company believes were responsible for messages that are "extremely defamatory, stalking in nature, sexual harassment."
According to one source, six court orders were filed against local and international Internet service providers, including two of the biggest, America Online and CompuServe.
The court file remains sealed, under a judge's order, in Ontario Court (general division) in Hamilton.
A judge has set aside for now an order for the ISPs to cough up all the dates and times the subscribers used the Internet this year.
Yahoo!, of Santa Clara, Calif., supplied the Internet protocol numbers of those who posted to the Philip message board.
Yahoo! spokesperson Diane Hunt said her firm responded to a subpoena from the Superior Court of Santa Clara County. Kuhn said Yahoo! agreed to remove "some of the more defamatory messages (that) . . . breached their rules and regulations".
Kuhn said the company had not contacted any of the subscribers who had been identified.
Philip posted a message June 18 on its Yahoo! board, warning people that the company was going to take action against those it believed were involved in defamation or threatening messages. The court actions followed up on that warning.
The far-reaching action has uneased Internet experts who jealously safeguard the rights of people to use the Net in privacy.
"It will certainly serve as a kind of a wake-up call", said David Jones, computer science professor at McMaster University.
He is also president of the Electronic Frontier Canada, dedicated to protecting freedom of information and the right to privacy in cyberspace.
"A lot of people have the sense, when they're on the Internet, that they're anonymous and they're only known by an alias that they make up and that it's difficult that it can be traced back to them."