An Ontario court has ordered the owners of the FreeDominion.ca to disclose all personal information on eight anonymous posters to the chat site. The required information includes email and IP addresses. The case arises from a lawsuit launched by Richard Warman, the anti-hate fighter, against the site and the posters. The court focused heavily on the Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure, which contain a strong duty of disclosure on litigants.
The discussion includes a review of many key Internet privacy cases, including the CRIA file sharing litigation (which the court distinguishes on the basis of different court rules) and the Irwin Toy case (which emphasized the importance of protecting anonymity, but which the court tries to distinguish on the basis of the newness of the issue at the time). The court also looks at the string of recent cases involving child pornography cases and ISP disclosure of customer information, concluding that "the court's most recent pronouncement on this is that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy."
According to the defendants in the case, they are unsure if they have the resources to appeal. This particular decision feels like a judge anxious to order to disclosure, despite the weight of authority that provides some measure of privacy protection for anonymous posters. Indeed, the public policy issue is characterized as "we are dealing with an anti-hate speech advocate and Defendants whose website is so controversial that it is blocked to employees of the Ontario Public Service." Leaving aside the fact that sites blocked to employees of the Ontario Public Service is not much of a threshold (Facebook is blocked to the OPS), the public policy issue is not the merits of the particular website. Rather, it is the privacy and free speech rights of the posters to that site.
Protection for anonymous postings is certainly not an absolute, but a high threshold that requires prima facie evidence supporting the plaintiff's claim is critical to ensuring that a proper balance is struck between the rights of a plaintiff (whether in a defamation or copyright case) and the privacy and free speech rights of the poster. I cannot comment on the postings themselves (and I recognize that Warman has been a frequent target online) but I fear that the high threshold seems to have been abandoned here, with the court all-too-eager to dismiss the privacy considerations associated with mandated disclosure by not engaging in an analysis as to whether the evidentiary standard was met.