Monday, March 24, 2014

Defamation Law in Absurdastan: Two pseudonyms battle it out in an Ottawa Courtroom while freedom of speech is dealt a death blow



Defamation law in Canada is a glaring example of the archaic state of our laws. This week in an Ottawa courtroom, two Internet bloggers – who both use pseudonyms – are going to state their case before a judge.  In one corner is the defendant, an inveterate blogger who uses the pseudonym Peter O’Donnell (AKA Roger Smith) who is being sued for saying that another pseudonym “Dr Dawg” (AKA John Baglow) is “one of the Taliban’s more vocal supporters”.  And caught in the middle are Mark and Connie Fournier who run a message board called FreeDominion, where 1 alias apparently defamed another alias in a back and forth message thread.

This case initially started back on August 10, 2010, when pseudonym Peter O’Donnell made a posting on FreeDominion (as part of a larger conversation which occurred across multiple blogs).  The posting in part said “I will return to that rather astounding claim but first, the other salvo in the offensive, Dr. Dawg's colourfully illustrated op-ed that describes the conservative base (for which nobody has claimed non-existence) amounts to "yokels with pitchforks." This coming from one of the Taliban's more vocal supporters. I suppose they are super-yokels with Kalashnikovs." (Complained of words in bold) [Quoted from court judgment on case)

So one Internet pseudonym named Peter O’Donnell commented on another internet pseudonym named Dr. Dawg in the heat of a spirited debate.  How on earth could two internet pseudonyms ‘slagging’ each other in an online debate … end up being an on-going 3+ year legal ordeal and costing tens of thousands in legal bills?  Welcome to the antiquated world of defamation law and its application to the medium of the Internet.  While I am not going to specifically refer to validity of the “Dr. Dawg” vs “Peter O’Donnell” case which is currently before the courts – I have some thoughts on the law itself.

Ontario’s defamation law is absurd in its entirety, a relic of the pre-internet world.  Once a defamation claim is filed, ‘damages’ are presumed.  There is a very low bar to meet, which is that the words … tend to lower a person’s ‘reputation’ in the eyes of a reasonable man.  But in the Blogosphere and the Twitterverse, what does that even mean nowadays?  How could you quantify what a person’s alias is really worth and should Canada’s over-burdened court system really be the arbiter of these petty disputes?

The internet is unique as a communications medium.  When Ontario’s defamation laws were written; a world where individuals could post and communicate ideas by themselves without vast publishing empire could have never even been conceptualized.  Perhaps defamation laws were written to protect the reputations of little people against huge publishing empires. 50 years ago, the only outlet for mass communications were limited to TV stations, newspapers and magazine publishers.   Nowadays anyone with access to a computer and an idea they wish to communicate can do so with just a few clicks of a button.  There is no middle-man controlling the flow of information and this is the inherent design of the Internet, and what makes the internet so popular.

The Internet allows all sides of an argument to present their ideas and enables the readers to determine what is correct and reasonable to them.  Just take the mystery surrounding Malaysia flight 370.  A quick google search shows over 1 million webpages discussing the topic, with comments ranging from terrorism, pilot error, to an equipment malfunction. The free flow of ideas is liberating to see and empowering for the populace.  Most of those webpages are people without a vast publishing empire, or a multi-billion dollar TV station.  Readers who are interested in that topic can peruse the various websites and make a determination themselves as to what is real and legitimate information.

What role does the court have in this?

Thanks to Ontario’s absurd defamation laws, the court has jurisdiction on any information that is from or about someone living in Ontario.  As a resident of Ontario, I could file a defamation lawsuit against almost anyone, so long as the information appeared (or was accessible) on a computer in Ontario.  If the person was outside of Ontario/Canada, it might be difficult to collect any purported damages tho. 

Take the above mentioned case (indexed by the court as “Baglow, a.k.a. "Dr. Dawg" v. Smith, a.k.a. "Peter O'Donnell", et al.”).  Here you have “Dr Dawg” who apparently lives in Ottawa, who sued “Peter O’Donnell” who apparently lives in British Columbia, for a post on a website located in Panama (!), operated by two people apparently living in Kingston, Ontario.  Now an Ontario court is going to decide if a pseudonymous posting on a Panamanian webserver was defamatory of pseudonym living in Ottawa? Can it get any more absurd?

Defamation law has really ‘jumped the shark’.  When the courts have to sit and be arbitrators for content on a website located 7,000 KMs away, posted between two internet aliases, what has the law really become and how far will the law go to restrict freedom of expression?  If ‘Beast from the East’ can’t be critical of ‘Vancouver Veronica’ on a website located in Moldova, what value does freedom of speech even have in Ontario? 

Under Ontario’s crazy defamation law, Kim Jong Un could file a defamation lawsuit against an Ontario Blogger for poking fun at his recent 100% election ‘victory’ via a website in Timbuktu. Is Canada Absurdastan?  Absolutely!

It’s time to consider a full repeal of Ontario’s defamation law.  We have tried this horrible law for over 50 years; why not give freedom a chance?