A pseudonym can’t save you

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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.

Organizations: Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Star, Carleton University World Wide Web

Geographic location: Ottawa

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Recent comments

  • Tea Bag
    May 02, 2013 - 10:17

    I didn't ask to be saved by anyone and I'll stand by anything I've written, I just have a boring name! I was asked to comment, so I did, with my own new perspective. Why don't everyone just be anonymous? They don't mind when I donate money with an anonymous name. If people are too stunned to get the point, then let them complain about a name. They shouldn't be so nosey and Isn't it funny that the person who wrote this article didn't leave their name. Yeah!

  • crista
    May 01, 2013 - 18:10

    you are right any one that do not know what they are talking about in serious topics and do not have the knowledge of what they are talking about and try to re-direct common sense they are not doing it for nothing one would think there would be good reasons for what ones actions are when doing so they should stay off the public internet and stop being a public nuisance while some one is trying to educate and get some thing done that some one do not want to do unless it is in or it is for their own best interest???? it is called obstruction of justice and that is not only called misleading???? and not being negligent or slanderous in what is spoke of when you speak of your charter and freedoms or do not hide or benefit from government or neither employer or use public media as a past time???? it is done for the right reasons????

  • david
    May 01, 2013 - 12:31

    Brian Burke is an American who got a rough ride in Toronto, and like all Americans he resents it. He doesn't care that he's simply digging his reputation here a deeper hole, and he's got the money and time on his hands to do it. Good for him.

  • Calvin
    May 01, 2013 - 09:58

    Glad to see the editorial page getting away from politics for the first time in a while. I think this is a few days in a row now that an interesting story has been posted here instead of political bull. Anyway, the biggest problem I see with this whole "You are responsible for what you say on the internet" issue is that there are numerous individuals in cyber land that can fabricate pretty well anything they want. Need a path created to lead law enforcement off your trail? I am pretty sure you can find someone to do that for you on Crag's List. Need your grades changed? For a tidy sum, a computer sciences student could do that for you. So even though everything posted on the internet is there forever, that doesn't necessarily make it the truth. If some cyber dummy wanted to bad mouth Brian Burke but didn't want to leave a trail to themselves, they would leave a trail to someone else for law enforcement to find. But sure, as a basic rule, don't post anything online that you wouldn't put in 20 foot high letters in your front yard.

  • saelcove
    May 01, 2013 - 09:56

    Maybe you should move to the USA

  • Don II
    May 01, 2013 - 09:10

    This article contains excellent advice and malicious posters should pay close attention. The value of public discourse can be easily undermined and abused. If the comments made about Mr. Burke are malicious and untrue he has every right to defend his reputation. Those who post comments on public websites should not post comments which contain patently false, slanderous, libelous, defamatory, fabricated statements for reasons of revenge or stupidity which defame anyone. Posters should be professional, courteous and respectful but the fact that statements can be harsh and confrontational does not make them untrue or incorrect. Even when you have the facts and can prove what you say is true and correct you can still be sued but the truth and the facts will be the ultimate defense. Some will try to intimidate you with threats of lawsuits in order to stop you from stating those facts in public or to stop you from asking pertinent questions in public. It appears that these people have things to hide which are sometimes of a personal or criminal nature. It appears that there have been cases where people have been sued for defamation but when the defense discovery process began and the facts and truth started to come out and even more questions began to arise the so called aggrieved party soon realized that he/she had opened the legal bottle in haste and the Genie was going to be coming out in Court no less. These cases were soon dropped. Information should be available openly and transparently in the public interest. It has been my experience that Posters use fake names to attempt to protect their identity in order to prevent retribution from their employer or to avoid abuse mainly from the Government. Unlike the United States of America where whistle blowers are very well compensated and their employment is protected for disclosing and exposing wrongdoing, such is not the case in Canada where the Government operates by the rule that no good deed shall go unpunished. The public is kept in the dark, the facts are suppressed by those who hire lawyers to intimidate and attempt to silence dissent and inquiry. The framers of the US Constitution over 2 centuries ago protected the right of freedom of speech and protected the freedom of the Press for very good reasons. Nevertheless, there are those who will try to suppress freedom of speech and freedom of the Press and will obstruct, co-opt or mislead all media at every opportunity. There is no place in public media for anyone who knowingly defames, libels or slanders anyone for personal or financial gain or for revenge. Those who have no facts, no common sense and no knowledge of the laws should keep their comments off the public internet.