The Internet's freewheeling, anything-goes image has been overhauled by an unprecedented legal decision giving a company the power to demand the identities of its online critics.
A Hamilton court has opened the door for Philip Services Corp. to collect the names, addresses, and electronic records of anonymous Internet users who have assailed the company over computer lines.
Legal and computer experts say that move could destroy the kind of open debate which has come to define the Internet.
"To my knowledge, in Canada, there haven't been orders like this one before", said Brian Rogers, a Toronto-based media lawyer who specializes in Internet law.
"It's going to be a pretty chilling factor for people using the Internet to communicate freely."
The order compels Internet service providers including PsiNet, America Online, and Weslink Datalink to hand over names, addresses, telephone numbers, computer serial numbers, and records of Philip critics who post messages to a U.S.-based Web site called Yahoo.
The posters generally use pseudonyms, a common practice in Internet discussion groups.
But while many believe their identity is safely concealed in the vastness of cyberspace, online postings can be traced.
After receiving a subpoena, Yahoo gave Philip the data it needed to pinpoint the Internet service providers its critics were using to post their messages, said Diane Hunt, a Yahoo spokesperson.
"Our policy is to comply with the law. When people use Yahoo they agree to terms and conditions, and one of those is that if Yahoo is required to provide information as part of the legal process, we will do that."
Now, Internet providers have begun handing over identities and personal information they have on Philip's critics.
For example, Hamilton-based Weslink revealed to Philip that one of its cyber critics who went by the Internet name of Stucklikeglue was actually John Gallagher, a former Hamilton city councillor.
"I'm very surprised at Weslink", said Gallagher. "They could have taken it upon themselves to make sure my interests were protected as a client. Anyone using the Internet now believing they will be protected by an alias should probably think again."
Weslink officials did not return phone calls yesterday.
Tricia Primrose, a spokesperson for Virginia-based America Online (AOL), said her company also plans to comply with the court order.
While AOL has already received the Philip court order in its Canadian office, it has yet to be served at the Virginia headquarters where the data is kept, she said.
But once the paperwork comes through, the company will deliver the names and records requested.
Paul Palango, an investigative journalist, says the Philip move is a scare tactic designed to plug an eruption of public criticism about the company's dismal financial figures of late, an exodus of senior managers and a copper trading scandal.
"This company has terrorized its critics", said Palango, who is an outspoken critic of Philip on the Yahoo chat site. "There have been threats of lawsuits worth millions to try to neutralize criticism, the use of private investigators to scare and intimidate people, you name it."
"And now they've targeted the Internet."
"These are desperate measures by desperate people in desperate times."
Philip spokesperson Lynda Kuhn did not return phone calls to The Star yesterday.
Alan Gold, a Toronto lawyer representing PsiNet, said the Internet provider is not handing over any names just yet.
"We are looking into all possible legal steps to protect the confidentiality of our clients. The matter will have to be decided by a court as to whether information can be taken from an ISP in this fashion."
That means either appealing the order or returning to court for clarification or changes, Gold said.
Because the order was ex parte - meaning none of the ISPs were notified in advance or permitted to make arguments - no one has presented another side of the issue to the court, he said.
David Jones, a computer scientist at McMaster University in Hamilton, said unmasking anonymous Internet users reveals how vulnerable privacy has become on the Net.
"It's clearly not up to Internet users whether their privacy will get violated. It's up to companies with deep pockets that can bring the force of the justice system down on small companies and individuals in this way."