While the internet provides users with an environment in which socially valuable anonymous speech can flourish, it also provides users with an opportunity to defame others behind a shield of anonymity. If these users can be identified, they may be held liable for defamation. Unfortunately for plaintiffs, the identities of these individuals are usually known only by the website or internet service provider (“ISP”) through which the statements were made, and these entities generally decline to disclose a user’s identity in the absence of a court order compelling them to do so. Faced with a growing stream of plaintiffs who seek these kinds of orders, courts have sought to craft approaches to evaluating applications for disclosure that strike an appropriate balance between the privacy interests of anonymous internet posters and the reputational interests of plaintiffs.
Yesterday, the Ontario Divisional Court released its decision in Warman v. Fournier et al, 2010 ONSC 2126 (Div. Ct.) rev’g (2009), 309 D.L.R. (4th) 227, 76 C.P.C. (6th) 155 (Ont. S.C.J.) (“Warman”). At issue was whether the disclosure provisions of the Rules of Civil Procedure, R.R.O. 1990, Reg. 194 (the “Rules”) automatically entitle plaintiffs in internet defamation cases to obtain the identifying information of anonymous posters from websites and ISPs, or whether courts must balance the interests of plaintiffs with the freedom of expression and privacy interests of anonymous posters. The decision is now the leading authority in Ontario for the proposition that the objectives of the disclosure obligations under the Rules must be balanced with the right of freedom of expression in internet defamation cases. This article discusses the background, holding, and implications of Warman.
The Respondent commenced an action against the Appellants, the operators of an internet message board, and eight anonymous message board participants with respect to a series of allegedly defamatory postings. After commencing the action, the Respondent brought a motion for an order compelling the Appellants to comply with Rule 76.03 of the Rules which required the Appellants to file an affidavit of documents that disclosed the email and internet protocol (“IP”) addresses of the anonymous posters in order to allow the Respondent to identify the posters and serve them with the statement of claim.
The motions judge rejected the Appellants’ submission that the Respondent was required to establish a prima facie case of defamation before disclosure could be ordered. Instead, Justice Kershman concluded that Rule 76.03 of the Rules required the Appellants to disclose all documents in their power or control and that such disclosure should be automatic upon the issuance of a statement of claim because the information was relevant and not protected by privilege.
This decision stood in stark contrast with earlier cases that offered some protection to the privacy interests of internet users by requiring plaintiffs to demonstrate a bona fide or prima facie case of defamation before ordering disclosure (see: previous posting). The motions judge distinguished these cases on the basis that the Respondent was seeking to compel the Appellants to follow the Rules as required by named parties to the action, whereas the other cases involved discretionary orders for the production of documents from third parties.
2. Holding on Appeal
The Divisional Court unanimously allowed the appeal and remitted the matter to a different motions judge for re-consideration, recognizing that the anonymous posters’ right of freedom of expression under the Charter should have been taken into account in considering the Respondent’s request for disclosure under the Rules. Moreover, the Court noted that the posters’ express decisions to remain anonymous gave them a reasonable expectation of privacy that weighed in their favour.
In rejecting the notion that disclosure should be automatic, the Court also expressed concern for the ease by which a plaintiff could abuse the Rules by filing claims in a spurious manner simply to identify an anonymous poster:
If disclosure were automatic, a plaintiff with no legitimate claim could misuse the Rules of Civil Procedure by commencing an unmeritorious action for the sole purpose of revealing the identity of anonymous internet commentators, with a view to stifling such commentators and deterring others from speaking out on controversial issues. For this reason, the commencement of a defamation claim does not trump freedom of expression or the right to privacy.
[Warman, at para. 33]
After surveying previous decisions, Justice Wilton-Siegel set out four considerations, aimed at preventing abuse of the Rules and respecting the privacy of internet users, that should have been considered by the motions judge in deciding whether to order disclosure under the Rules:
- whether the unknown alleged wrongdoer could have a reasonable expectation of anonymity in the particular circumstances;
- whether the Respondent has established a prima facie case against the unknown alleged wrongdoer and is acting in good faith;
- whether the Respondent has taken reasonable steps to identify the anonymous party and has been unable to do so; and
- whether the public interests favouring disclosure outweigh the legitimate interests of freedom of expression and right to privacy of the persons sought to be identified if the disclosure is ordered.
[Warman, at para. 34]
In concluding that plaintiffs should be required to meet a prima facie standard rather than a lower bona fide standard, the Court emphasized the importance of protecting freedom of expression and noted that there was no concern that the higher standard would deprive applicants of a remedy:
In para. 34 of BMG [2005 FCA 193], the Federal Court of Appeal expressed the concern that, in that case, imposition of a prima facie case standard would effectively strip an applicant of a remedy because the plaintiff could not know the actual case it wished to assert against the defendants until it knew not only their identities but also the nature of their involvement in the [internet] file-sharing activities. Because the present proceeding is a defamation action, that concern does not arise. Unlike BMG, the respondent knows the details of precisely what was done by each of the unknown alleged wrongdoers.
In addition, because this proceeding engages a freedom of expression interest, as well as a privacy interest, a more robust standard is required to address the chilling effect on freedom of expression that will result from disclosure. It is also consistent with the recent pronouncements of the Supreme Court that establish the relative weight that must be accorded the interest in freedom of expression. In the circumstances of a website promoting political discussion, the possibility of a defence of fair comment reinforces the need to establish the element of defamation on a prima facie basis in order to have due consideration to the interest in freedom of expression. On the other hand, there is no compelling public interest in allowing someone to libel and destroy the reputation of another, while hiding behind a cloak of anonymity. The requirement to demonstrate a prima facie case of defamation furthers the objective of establishing an appropriate balance between the public interest in favour of disclosure and legitimate interests of privacy and freedom of expression.
[Warman, at paras. 41 – 42]
Warman represents an important recognition that while internet users’ anonymity ought not to be protected absolutely, the mere commencement of a defamation action should not give rise to an automatic entitlement to information identifying a previously anonymous poster without a consideration of the interests of privacy and freedom of expression.
Nevertheless, there is still uncertainty with respect to the degree of protection that courts will afford to anonymous posters in the future. Under Canadian law, plaintiffs have two ways to seek disclosure in internet defamation cases. Apart from identifying anonymous defendants by seeking pre-action discovery or production of relevant information under procedural rules, as occurred in Warman, plaintiffs may also bring independent actions for disclosure of the identity of anonymous defendants by way of an equitable bill of discovery known as a “Norwich order”. Norwich orders were introduced in the decision of the House of Lords in Norwich Pharmacal Co. v. Customs and Excise Commissioners,  A.C. 133 (H.L.) in which it was held that where a third party becomes involved in the tortious acts of others, that third party has a duty to disclose the identity of the tortfeasor so that the plaintiff may pursue its remedies. The Norwich factors were recently confirmed by the Ontario Court of Appeal in GEA Group AG v. Flex-N-Gate Corporation, 2009 ONCA 619 and applied in the internet defamation context by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in York University v. Bell Canada Enterprises (2009), 311 D.L.R. (4th) 755 (Ont. S.C.J.) (“York University”):
- whether the applicant has provided evidence sufficient to raise a valid, bona fide or reasonable claim;
- whether the applicant has established a relationship with the third-party from whom the information is sought, such that it establishes that the third party is involved in the acts;
- whether the third party is the only practicable source of the information;
- whether the third party can be indemnified for costs to which it may be exposed because of the disclosure; and
- whether the interests of justice favour obtaining the disclosure.
[York University, at para. 13]
Although the second and fourth Norwich factors were not relevant in Warman because they apply only to third party respondents rather than co-defendants [see Warman, at para. 39], some of the other Norwich factors are similar to the considerations set out in Warman that are now applicable to the question of whether a court should order disclosure under the Rules. However, an important difference remains. While the approach under Warman requires plaintiffs to demonstrate a prima facie case of defamation, Norwich jurisprudence has required plaintiffs to meet the lower bona fide standard. For example, even though the plaintiff in York University managed to establish a prima facie case of defamation, the court did not require the plaintiff to demonstrate more than a bona fide case. Although Warman provides compelling reasons to prefer the higher prima facie standard where the plaintiff seeks disclosure through a Norwich order, it remains open for courts to require plaintiffs to meet the lower standard instead.