Internet service providers including America Online, CompuServe, and PSINet have been served with court orders that could force them to reveal the names of members who posted messages online that allegedly disparaged Canadian waste recycling firm Philip Services Corporation.
Though the court orders have already been issued, they have to be served through a U.S. court before the companies must comply.
Canadian ISP Weslink Datalink has already revealed the real names of some of its members after a court order was issued by Judge Nicholas Borokovich of the Ontario Court's General Division in Hamilton, the Globe and Mail reported.
Philip claimed that a number of individuals were making malicious attacks against its employees on a Yahoo message board, including threats of stalking and violence, ethnic slurs, and sexually harassing statements.
In June, a subpoena was issued to Yahoo on behalf of the Hamilton, Ontario-based company to obtain the ISP addresses of the harassers, said Philip spokeswoman Linda Kuhn. Philip then went to a local court to obtain the court orders to track down on the individuals via the ISPs.
Yahoo has since removed the more defamatory messages from the boards, saying they violated the boards' terms and conditions agreement, Kuhn said. Kuhn also added that Yahoo did not provide the names of the email subscribers, but provided the IP addresses after the subpoena was served. The IP address would enable Philip to find the ISP from which the message originated.
"Our singular and primary interest is stopping the defamation," said Kuhn. "This has nothing to with criticism of the company. There are over 2,300 messages on the board and most of them [are] related to the company's affairs and [contain] a lot of criticism, and that's all a part of civil liberties and freedom of speech. And those kinds of messages are not in any way involved in this action."
The issuance of the court orders underscores the fact that the Net has evolved from a once free-wheeling environment to a more mainstream medium where users are held accountable for their actions. For example, a California man was convicted in February of federal civil rights violations for sending a threatening email message to Asian students at the University of California at Irvine. The man claimed during the trial that the messages were intended as a joke.
It also illustrates that the Net no longer a haven for people who want to express their opinions anonymously.
"It underscores the issue which is, to what extent do people have the ability and right to communicate anonymously on the Internet, and is that right gonna come into conflict with attempts such as in Canada to identify people who have said things that other people don't like?" said David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "I think we're going to see a lot more of these cases, and we will sooner rather than later need to start establishing rules."
Rick Broadhead, coauthor of the Canadian Internet Handbook, said the legal action by Philip was groundbreaking in Canada and could force people who chat online to curb any remarks that might spark legal action.
"It will be a wake-up call for a lot of people because they think they are protected and can masquerade under an anonymous address on the Net and say things that are potentially libelous," Broadhead said.
On the flip side, some say the interest of privacy on the Internet shouldn't prevent libel victims from protecting their own rights.
"In a sense it's private," said Alan Gahtan, an attorney at Bennett Jones Verchere. "But if someone's making defamatory statements, that's breaching someone's rights. You have to weigh what's the greater evil."
AOL is no stranger to the free speech vs. defamation debate. Last month, for example, AOL removed a site critical of Islam after scholars at al-Azhar University in Cairo protested. AOL said the site had violated its terms of service, which prohibit the posting of defamatory or injurious material.
Though AOL did not reveal the identity of the user who posted the anti-Islam site, a legal action such as Philip's would be grounds for the company to comply. AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose said the court order had not been served yet to its Dulles, Virginia-based headquarters. However, its usual policy is to alert subscribers so they could react, and then release the names within ten days, she said.
Sobel supports AOL's tactic of informing users of the court order, and said that other ISPs should adopt these principles. He added that "the intrusiveness of [the Philip case] underscores that such an order shouldn't have been entered without notice or participation of the subjects of that request. It's an important right that users ought to have."
Nonetheless, some observers see the court orders as excessive.
Tim Pinos, a commercial litigator with the Toronto law firm Cassels Brock & Blackwell, assailed Philip's move. "Either they're really thin-skinned, it's a diversionary tactic, or it's both."
"People post crap on the Internet," Pinos added. "You don't take it personally."
CNET Radio reporter Rose Aguilar and Reuters contributed to this report.