by Christine Whalen, Christine Whalen
A Canadian company has been granted a dozen court orders demanding that ISPs hand over the names of those who posted inflammatory comments online about the firm in an investor forum.
Canadian Internet users who thought they could safely post their opinions on the Web received a wake-up call Friday.
Philip Services, an industrial waste recycling company based in Ontario, has been granted 12 court orders to obtain the names of critics who have posted negative comments about the company on a Yahoo Finance message board. The court orders are directed at several Canadian Internet service providers. At least one, Weslink Datalink, has released a customer's name as a result of the legal action.
"I think a lot of people have been lulled into a false sense of security that they really are anonymous on the Internet", said David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada.
"Customers of [Internet service providers] need to start thinking more carefully about what kind of privacy they actually have", said Jones.
Philip Services (PHV), located in the city of Hamilton on the west end of Lake Ontario, has fallen on hard times as of late. The company has weathered a dramatic drop in its stock, a copper trading scandal, and the departure of most of its senior managers. There's been speculation among journalists that some of the comments criticizing the company were posted by Philip employees who wanted to air the company's dirty laundry, according to Jones.
The Globe and Mail, the Canadian newspaper that first published the Yahoo message board story, identified one of the posters as a former Hamilton city councilman who has been involved in public disputes over pollution in Hamilton's harbor. Another poster is a freelance journalist who has a history of legal disputes with Philip.
Critics of the legal maneuver claim Philip is trying to stifle free speech, but company spokeswoman Lynda Kuhn said Philip doesn't object to the criticisms leveled at the company, but rather to defamatory remarks aimed at its employees.
Kuhn said Philip initiated the legal action at the request of employees who were reading the Yahoo forums and becoming increasingly alarmed at the level of "personal defamation, threats of stalking and violence, ethnic slurs, and sexual harassment.
"The supposition here by certain individuals is that it's open license on the Internet, that there are no laws that apply", Kuhn said. "Despite the fact that there are laws of defamation, they assumed that it was the place to say whatever they wanted", she said.
The initial 27 June order requiring Weslink to turn over the name of a message board poster was granted ex parte, meaning that only a lawyer representing Philip appeared in court. Weslink had the order amended this week, allowing the company, among other things, to inform the writer that his name had been released to Philip.
"Weslink seems to have rolled over", said Jones. "What's unfortunate here is that the privacy at stake is the individuals', but the decision to disclose is the company's. That is the biggest concern that I have: Weslink and [the other ISPs] are just companies. Privacy is just one factor to them -- they're also considering their time and expense and interruptions to business", he said.
"Privacy might be a minor factor, which I think is unfortunate", added Jones.
Nadir Desai, chief executive officer and president of the Canadian subsidiary of Virginia-based PsiNet, one of the companies involved in the Philip legal action, said he could not discuss the specifics of the case, but that the company is aware that it needs to respect the privacy of its customers while still complying with the law.
"We'll let the courts make the decision about the rights of users. What one individual deems as freedom of speech, another may deem defamation. With the Internet we're entering uncharted territory", said Desai.
Desai added that his understanding from the newspaper accounts of the situation was that "the ultimate issue resides between the individual end user and the complainant, which would be the company".
Kuhn said Philip hasn't decided whether to take further legal action against the message board posters.
"We're still gathering information -- our single objective was to stop the defamation and that continues to be our priority. The board continues, the criticism continues, but the defamation has to stop", said Kuhn.
Yahoo has removed most of the messages Philip objected to, but only after Philip obtained a court order, Jones said. A Yahoo spokeswoman declined to comment, except to say that messages violating the company's terms of service are taken down from the site.
Yahoo-authored introduction text on the message board invites open discussion on the company.
"This is the Yahoo Message Board about Philip Services Corp., where you can discuss the future prospects of the company and share information about it with others. This board is not connected in any way with the company, and any messages are solely the opinion and responsibility of the poster", said the site.
Jones said that many Canadian Internet users are "alarmed by these court orders and ISP companies rolling over".
"Depending on how much information Philip gets, this could be a kind of fishing expedition. Who knows what they may discover when they get ahold of people's computer records?"