And you are ...?

Pam
Pam Frampton
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

The argument against allowing comments to be posted anonymously to media websites just got ramped up a notch.

Firefighters in Halifax are waging a legal battle to find the people they say defamed them online in comments written under pseudonyms.

And a judge has just brought that one step closer to happening.

As The Chronicle Herald and The Canadian Press reported Tuesday, the comments were made by seven people on the website of the local weekly paper called The Coast. They were written about the fire chief and deputy chief in the wake of stories alleging there was racism among members of the fire department.

The argument against allowing comments to be posted anonymously to media websites just got ramped up a notch.

Firefighters in Halifax are waging a legal battle to find the people they say defamed them online in comments written under pseudonyms.

And a judge has just brought that one step closer to happening.

As The Chronicle Herald and The Canadian Press reported Tuesday, the comments were made by seven people on the website of the local weekly paper called The Coast. They were written about the fire chief and deputy chief in the wake of stories alleging there was racism among members of the fire department.

The use of fake names - in this case, monikers like "The Truth," "scandalous2010," and "in the know" - is permissible on The Coast's website, as it is on the websites of many media organizations, including The Telegram, CBC and The Chronicle Herald.

Google is also named in the Halifax court action, since some of the comments were made via Google gmail accounts.

The comments have since been removed from The Coast's website.

The case is a first for The Coast, and neither it nor Google contested the action.

"We do take our commenters' privacy very seriously," Coast editor and co-owner Kyle Shaw was quoted as saying.

But now, that privacy is about to be shattered, as the judge in the case has ordered The Coast and Google to identify the commenters and the firefighters are considering suing those people.

Rules aren't hard and fast

Now, most media sites have rules or guidelines about what constitutes acceptable comment - most stipulate that nothing defamatory or extremely incendiary or personally derogatory is allowed. The trouble is, inappropriate comments can still slip through.

That can happen for a number of reasons.

It could be because a news organization simply doesn't have enough people to carefully review the torrents of comments that get submitted every day.

Or perhaps the website isn't moderated at all and instead the newspaper or broadcaster relies on readers to alert them of offensive comments on their site - as was the case with The Coast. By the time that occurs, the damage could be done.

Or, it could simply be that one moderator's idea of bad taste or legally dicey content differs from another's.

The point is, troublesome stuff can filter through.

For example, one day last week, in response to a story about a disgraced federal politician whose spouse had a recent run-in with the law, one reader noted on our site:

"With that said, her husband got (off) with impaired driving and cocaine (possession), so I expect her to receive a gold watch."

In fact, the man in question had pleaded guilty to reckless driving and was given a fine. Charges of possessing cocaine and driving drunk were dropped.

Does that mean he "got off" with something, or that there was insufficient evidence to convict him of those charges, or that he was innocent of them? The point is, the charges were dropped, and so the poster's comment is inaccurate at best and libelous at worst.

Almost anything goes

By allowing commenters anonymity, there is little consequence when inflammatory comments are made, because not everyone has enough patience, money or time to try to find out who made the comment and to take them to court.

But, as the Halifax firefighters' case now proves, some people are willing to fight that fight.

And it's one we should all be watching.

The argument for anonymity has been that it encourages more people to participate and tends to spark more unfettered debate.

In an Ontario case, judges are considering whether an Ottawa lawyer was defamed by anonymous posts on the website freedominion.com. In response, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has argued, "Anonymity reduces the possibility of identification and fear of reprisal and encourages individuals to engage in legitimate, even unpopular expression."

Such freedom of expression is important, and plays an important role in whistleblowing scenarios where wrongdoing is brought to light.

But that isn't always what freedom of expression brings.

Instead, the sometimes crude and insulting tenor of online anonymous posts have driven some discussions out of the public domain. Many readers, viewers and listeners prefer to get their points across via phone, letter and e-mail directly to the reporter or columnist rather than take part in an anonymous mud-slinging free-for-all, where every second word is idiot, stunned-arse or welfare bum.

This might be an opportune time for media organizations to consider requiring all posters to provide their actual names and valid e-mail addresses.

There will always be poseurs, of course. You don't need to be a web whiz to know that fake names and e-mail addresses can be created solely for the purpose of preserving the poster's anonymity.

However, given the possibility that pseudonyms don't offer iron-clad protection from being outed in court, perhaps commenters will be more inclined to play by the rules.

There are times and places when the right to anonymity is paramount, but there are other methods of clandestine communication besides public forums.

News media websites should encourage opinion, criticism and fresh insight from members of the public.

And that kind of debate has far more credibility if all of us are willing to take our masks off.

Pam Frampton is The Telegram's story editor. She can be reached by e-mail at pframpton@thetelegram.com. Read her columns online at www.thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Google, The Chronicle Herald, The Telegram Canadian Press CBC Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Geographic location: Halifax, Ontario, Ottawa

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page

Comments

Comments

Recent comments

  • Steve
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    I have a good friend of mine who always said - It is dangerous when you give the public at large free and open access to the broadcast media.

    The ironic thing about his feelings is that he is a now retired newspaper man. He was referring to some of the rubbish we would be subjected to on a daily basis from the various radio call in shows. He could never have predicted that some day this would also apply to our online newspapers as well.

    I think he was right!

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    I use a pseudonym not because I have anything to hide , but because, I have experienced some very nasty threats and reprisals that have been perpetrated against my family and my pets . When I write letters to the editor , I have to use my given name , and I am comfortable with that . I have used my name when posting because I am rarely abusive , if ever . My rule of thumb when posting or giving my opinion is to remember to discuss the actions of people rather than personality . One of the greatest pieces of advise given to me by an editor was to never make statements , but , to always ask questions .

  • Steve
    July 01, 2010 - 20:24

    I have a good friend of mine who always said - It is dangerous when you give the public at large free and open access to the broadcast media.

    The ironic thing about his feelings is that he is a now retired newspaper man. He was referring to some of the rubbish we would be subjected to on a daily basis from the various radio call in shows. He could never have predicted that some day this would also apply to our online newspapers as well.

    I think he was right!

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 19:57

    I use a pseudonym not because I have anything to hide , but because, I have experienced some very nasty threats and reprisals that have been perpetrated against my family and my pets . When I write letters to the editor , I have to use my given name , and I am comfortable with that . I have used my name when posting because I am rarely abusive , if ever . My rule of thumb when posting or giving my opinion is to remember to discuss the actions of people rather than personality . One of the greatest pieces of advise given to me by an editor was to never make statements , but , to always ask questions .