Brian Burke lawsuit puts anonymous commenting back in the spotlight

When Brian Burke filed a defamatory lawsuit against 18 anonymous Internet users in April, the former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager said he was aiming “to stop people who post comments on the Internet from thinking they can fabricate wild stories with impunity.”

Filed in B.C., the lawsuit targets individuals who reposted comments via blogs and online forums, stating Burke had an affair with Sportsnet host Hazel Mae.

And although the case once again raises questions about whether Internet posters should be allowed to remain anonymous, many digital publishers are already abandoning the practice, says Chris Advansun, marketing director at Viafoura Inc.

The Toronto company creates plug-ins for publishers to manage online commenting. Viafoura serves media outlets like Bell Media, CTV Television Network, CNN, TC Transcontinental and Global News.

A prime example of a publisher embracing this shift is the CBC, Advansun says. It currently allows readers to post under usernames, but it just signed a contract with Viafoura that will see the national broadcaster rolling out identified commenting in the fall.

“For anonymous commenting, it doesn’t require you to have an e-mail associated with that [account],” Advansun says. “Our system encourages you to use your real identity … you’ve created an account that shares your real identity and in many cases, you’ve created an account through a third-party social network that is your verified identity, like Facebook or Twitter.”

Publishers can choose to allow commentators to remain anonymous, but Advansun says roughly only about one-third of Viafoura’s clients choose this option.

While businesses do see a drop in the number of posted comments, he says the quality of the comments often goes up. Encouraging people to use their real identities makes them more accountable, he says.

With anonymous commenting “it’s just so easy to leave an angry, off-the-cuff comment. It’s sort of like drunk dialing, you just do it, the phone’s right there,” he says.

Earlier this year, an Illinois State senator went as far as to introduce a bill that would force Web site administrators to delete anonymously posted comments. Under the bill, site users would need to post with their real names attached and confirm both their IP address and street address. The senator later dropped the bill when it faced heated opposition.

Legislation for online commenting hasn’t been seen in Canada yet, but Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro called for the federal government to address the issue in the House of Commons last fall.

But even if there is no legislation on anonymous or identified commenting, the law of defamation applies just as much on the Internet as it does in real life, says defamation lawyer Michael Smith of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP.

In the case of Brian Burke, if he can trace the true identities of the 18 defendants named in the lawsuit, he may have a strong case, Smith says.

“Web sites, or the hosts of comments, do have defences available to them that aren’t available to posters. If you’re a publisher and you have published defamatory comments, but you really didn’t know that it was being published with the vehicle you were providing, and you show that you weren’t acting negligently in allowing that to happen … then you may be able to escape liability. But the posters themselves, of course, don’t have that defence available to them.”

Either way, the outcome of this case could have some strong effects on the future of online commenting, Smith says.

It’s something that businesses will continue to have to watch out for, Advansun adds.

“There are risks in general with allowing commenting to begin with,” he says. “You’re allowing a user to publish on your site an opinion … whether the comments are anonymous or not.”

But as commenting platforms like Viafoura will remind you, with risk comes reward.

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Candice So
Candice So
Candice is a graduate of Carleton University and has worked in several newsrooms as a freelance reporter and intern, including the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and the Windsor Star. Candice is a dog lover and a coffee drinker.

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