The Hamilton Spectator
Wednesday, July 15, 1998
page C5

Net providers' privacy dilemma

Weslink opposed Philip court order, NetAccess didn't

by David Akin, dakin@ham.southam.ca

As Philip Services Corp. closes in on the identity of anonymous cyberantagonists, there are new questions about the degree to which Internet service providers should fight for the privacy rights of their subscribers.

Yesterday, NetAccess Systems Inc. of Hamilton confirmed that it received and complied with a court order for information identifying one of its subscribers.

Weslink Datalink Corp. of Hamilton also complied with a similar order, but not before putting up a fight.

The court order, issued to NetAccess, Weslink, and other Internet service providers at the request of Philip Services Corp., asked for details about certain subscribers who had posted what Philip says are defamatory, threatening messages to a Yahoo! message board. The messages on the Yahoo! site are signed only by aliases such as Skeptic666 and CountBuster.

Philip has filed some sweeping lawsuits in both Ontario and California alleging that the anonymous critics threatened to hurt employees; that they defamed senior managers; and they sexually harassed female executives.

To continue with its lawsuits, Philip must identify the anonymous cyberantagonists. Its first step toward that goal was to subpoena Yahoo! Inc. for some details about the times and dates the offensive messages were posted.

Then, in Ontario, California, and soon in Virginia, it asked Internet service providers for usage logs which, when matched up with the information Yahoo! provided, would yield an Internet e-mail account.

To get the information it needed, Philip had an Ontario court issue eight orders which went to NetAccess, Weslink, AOL Canada Inc. of Toronto, iSTAR Inc. of Ottawa, and four other southern Ontario providers.

Each order asked, in essence, for information about an individual subscriber or subscribers but they also contained instructions to each Internet service provider that they could not communicate the existence of such an order to either the affected subscriber or to anyone else.

In other words, the Internet service providers were forced to reveal personal information about customers but not tell anyone that they had done so.

NetAccess complied with the order as it was presented to them.

"It's a very difficult position to be in because it's very hard to control what your users are going to put on sites like the discussion forum that was in Yahoo!", said NetAccess general manager Gary Bannister. "There's all kinds of questions about what rights you have to do that."

Other Internet service providers have also provided some information, although the company is still waiting for parts of the court order to be complied with.

American Online Inc. of Dulles, Va., the parent company of AOL Canada Inc., said yesterday it has provided no information to Philip about any of its subscribers and has not yet been served with any court orders.

To this point, it appears that Weslink is the only service provider to fight the original court order.

And while the court did not entirely agree with Weslink's application to set aside the original court order, the court did modify the original order to allow Weslink to tell the affected subscriber what was going on.

That affected subscriber was none other than former Hamilton politician John Gallagher, who quickly cried foul for what he claims are violation of his privacy rights. "We're very cognizant of the fact of our customers' privacy -- and that goes for any business. That's paramount", said Weslink general manager Randy Bastarache. "But what's also paramount is obeying the law. In our particular case, the law said you can't hide behind anonymity."

Internet service providers have no legal obligation to protect anyone's privacy, although many say they will protect some information as a matter of business policy.

Yahoo!'s and NetAccess' privacy policies are similar to those throughout the industry: Personal information will remain confidential until a court order compels a provider to disclose it. "We don't give out names, address, phone numbers, or who our users are to anybody under any circumstances -- unless we're compelled to by law", Bannister said.

NetAccess, in fact, goes further than some in explicitly warning users that they, not NetAccess, should take appropriate security measures if they wish to guarantee anonymity or protection of e-mail messages or transmission data.


Related Web site:

The Yahoo! Finance message board where discussion of Philip Services Corp. takes place is at:

http://messages.yahoo.com/bbs?action=t&type=r&board=yahoo.fe.03.7083509


(Sidebar)

Net Access

Privacy Policies

NetAccess Inc. of Hamilton is one of as many as six Internet service providers to be ordered to divulge information about its subscribers. The court order was made at the request of Philip Services Corp., which believes it has been defamed by some users of regional and national Internet service providers.

Here are some excerpts from the NetAccess policy statement at: http://info.nas.net/policy/policy.html

NetAccess' privacy policies are similar in philosophy to many others in the Internet industry.

Source: NetAccess Inc.


Copyright © 1998 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.