It’s fun to stir things up online — to post a few zingers in the comments section of a website, especially when you’ve gone to the trouble to try and hide your identity.
Who cares if it isn’t true, you might think. Who cares if you don’t even know anything about the issue?
It’s just a bit of anonymous fun, repeating things you might have heard from a friend of a friend, or even something funny you’ve made up. Just a few comments to drive other commenters into a frenzy, so that once they start calling you sexist or racist, you can lean back in your computer chair and have a few giggles.
Well, that kind of fun just got a little more complicated.
That’s because former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Brian Burke has launched a lawsuit against 18 bloggers and commenters, many of them using pseudonyms, who posted comments suggesting Burke’s firing was precipitated by an affair between Burke and a SportsNet anchor — a relationship that both Burke and the anchor said did not take place.
Burke issued a statement about his lawsuit, saying in part, that it was “time to stop people who post comments on the Internet from thinking they can fabricate wild stories with impunity.”
One of the anonymous posters? A 20-year-old Ottawa student named Zack Bradley.
“It’s a crazy idea, right? … I thought it was just a rumour. I said speculation,” Bradley told the Toronto Star on Monday. “What I said wasn’t probably true and I just removed it because I don’t want anything bad to happen in the future.”
It’s a little late for that. Bradley is a journalism student at Carleton University, so he should probably at least be starting to understand what the concept of libel is.
What may be harder for Bradley and others to grasp is that the Internet is not just a wall where you can paint your comments and then simply disappear again into the darkness: not only does it record your comment precisely, but it also tracks the route your comment took, a route that can later be recovered — which, lawyers suggest, is precisely why Burke has launched an action that names a group of people using pen names. Launching the action starts legal efforts to peel back the layers of the Internet onion to find the posters’ true identities.
Is there a moral in this whole tale? Perhaps that you shouldn’t post things that aren’t true, or that you can’t prove. Five minutes of fun stirring an Internet bees’ nest is hardly worth months of wondering what a lawsuit — even an unsuccessful one — might do to your finances, your sleep and your career.
And in case you’ve decided to change your ways and fly straight, turning your back on all the trash-talking of years’ past?
There’s only one problem, something that you should really be aware of: the Internet doesn’t forget. All of those comments and the trails back to you and your computer terminal are safely filed away somewhere in the giant permanent filing cabinet that is the World Wide Web, just waiting for someone to ask.