Catching trolls won’t be easy for Brian Burke

In the real world, the law’s on his side. But this is the Internet.


Chris Young/CPChris Young/CP

Brian Burke is thought to have struck a blow for accountability on the web with his defamation suit against 18 internet commenters, who last January spread rumours suggesting the erstwhile Toronto Maple Leafs general manager had an affair with sports TV anchor Hazel Mae.

“This will be a very public reminder to people that you can get sued for what you publish on the Internet,” libel lawyer Rider Gilliland told the Toronto Star in a typical response.

But is nabbing pseudonymous trolls the slam-dunk some analysts suggest?

Not by a long shot, says Michelle Awad, a Nova Scotia lawyer who fought a similar case, and has argued issues of Internet anonymity before the Supreme Court of Canada. While it’s true that case law empowers plaintiffs to unmask commenter who post libelous material, she says, the practical hurdles are considerable.

For starters, many web messages originate from IP addresses that host multiple users, such as cafés with unsecured wireless. “Once you have your court order,” Awad explains, “you go to the Internet service provider and ask for the customer information that goes with a particular IP address. But if it’s wireless Internet in a hotel lobby, you’re not going to get very far.”

Information held by the website where the comments are posted can be no more helpful, she adds. “Sometimes they log and say ‘I’m the Easter Bunny at Gmail.’ The site’s automatic registration system doesn’t recognize that’s probably not real.” At that point, says Awad, the plaintiff might take his court order to the webmail host—Google, say, or Yahoo—and seek user information from them. But there again, people can set up pseudonymous accounts from IP addresses that host many users.

So from a legal point of view, the web remains an untamed and unfriendly environment.

The better question arising from Burke’s suit: why does it name commenters but not websites or media companies? Sites, after all, are typically easy to trace to a specific IP address, and the offending statements in this case landed on some well-read ones. Moreover, those linked to major media agencies have deeper pockets, which means a successful plaintiff has the prospect of winning significant financial damages. The messages that so angered Burke appeared on, among other sites, Hockeyinsideout.com, a Montreal Canadiens-themed site run by the Gazette newspaper and owned by the Postmedia newspaper chain; and a popular blog called Canuckscorner.com.

At least one clue lies in a statement Burke’s lawyer, Peter Gall, issued Friday saying his client will seek damages from “everyone who has failed to take down these lies” when Burke first asked them to. According to Awad, the case law on a website operator’s responsibility is far from settled, but the courts look more kindly on sites that take responsibility for what they publish—who make a reasonable effort given the reach of their websites and their resources. Editors with Hockeyinsideout, for example, closely monitor comments, encouraging readers to alert them to potentially defamatory material and taking it down when they decide it crosses the line (a message from a commenter identified as ‘Ncognito’, who is named in Burke’s suit, is no longer on the site).

But others seem keen to play with fire. As the Star noted Saturday, one of the defendants named in the suit, THEzbrad, is linked to a blog where the comments appeared, and where an anonymously posted message this weekend dismissed the suit as “ridiculous.” “Burke obviously did not appreciate these few comments,” the post added, “but the fact that he is going to attempt to sue online commentators is pretty hilarious.”

That’s admirably nonchalant. But here’s some free advice to THEzbrad: take some time out from laughing and get yourself a lawyer.


Catching trolls won’t be easy for Brian Burke

  1. To me in many cases the medium of the internet isn’t much different than the medium used by ‘bathroom poets’. It is a message scrawled on a bathroom wall, and should be treated as such, It gains credence when provided attention.

    Brian, dude, chill.

    • “Brian, dude,chill” says the coward who is afraid to live in the real world.

      People like Brian Burke live in the real world because only by living in the real world can something of value be created and/or taken away.

      You, as a fake poster, have nothing of real value to offer to this world and therefor nothing of value can be taken from you. We all understand that you are not courageous enough to even state your real name when offering something as simple as an opinion.

      You are the coward here and I, for one, wonder why you have the need to be such a coward.

      • I use a pseudonym to make it more difficult for online bullies to track me down and harrass me in real life. Using a pseudonym was essential back in the days of Usenet, especially for contributors to the alt.atheism boards, such as myself. The Church of Scientology, and scattered other nutbars, would try to track down detractors in real life in order to make their lifes hell, if said detractors said anything negative about their pet religions. Having a pseudonym offered protection from these heavy-handed organizations and individuals. In such cases, having a pseudonym isn’t cowardly, it’s sensible.

        That said, I’m registered on Disqus under my real name and my real e-mail, so I’m not difficult to hold accountable if I libel anyone here. I also submit my real e-mail and name to boards that don’t use Disqus, if those boards are run by reputable companies. The requirement to track down my information is hopefully enough to prevent potential right-wing harrassors who simply disagree with my political positions from tracking me down in real life, while lawyers getting paid foolish sums to file cease and desist letters can track me down if I ever do type something actionable.

        Brian Burke is in the right here, and I hope his people manage to track down the trolls.

        • But then again: In this case, where you are posting nothing controversial, you still feel the need to use a fake name, so your explanation does not make that much sense.

          I understand all too well why most people use a fake name when posting. When using a fake name, one can pretend to be anyone. One can reason for or against any topic, one can say whatever non sense one wants to say because no one will know for certain what is real and what is not.

          We live in a fake world these days, and most people don’t object to that.

          • Maybe some people are concerned that disclosing personal information unnecessarily to the world is a great way to expose yourself to identity theft or other kinds of fraud.

            A five second google search of your name, I know the province and city you live in, I know your political affiliation, I know your job. I know where you were born. I have a picture of you. There’s a decent chance I know the name of your husband and your exact address.

            And you wonder why people don’t put their real names online.

          • Your points are well taken. Of course there is a risk involved with stating one’s name on the net.

            But at the very same time, comment boards loose all credibility when fake names are being used when commenting, because fake names have no responsibility as to what they say. Anything can be said when commenting under a fake name. What purpose then do the comment boards serve?

          • Francien, dude, chill.

          • Oh, you are so courageous! Bullying without a name attached. Could life be made any easier for you?

          • I’m sorry if you thought I was bullying – I was just trying to be playful. My name is right there – TCalnan – it’s Thomas, if you’re interested.

          • Yeah, I got the joke, but I decided to stay a true believer: it is so easy for bullies to do their dirty deeds when being able to use a fake name.

            When bullying presents itself as a problem in society, then comment boards loaded with fake names could be looked at for how bullies make up ground in a hell of a hurry.

            (your apology accepted!)

          • The comments can be judged on their merit alone. Divorcing the claim from the person making that claim allows us to more objectively judge the merits of their position. It allows people to discuss uncomfortable ideas in an adult fashion without the need to fear outside censure. At its best, anonymity allows for a much higher level of intellectual discourse than would be available if we all used our real names, or certainly if we were all face-to-face.

            The downside is that the same freedom that allows for unfettered intellectual discourse also allows for unbridled vulgarity. Such is always the way with free speech.

          • Excuse me, but I have always believed it to be true that when an individual will weigh the pros and cons on any issue if such an individual will be held accountable for such taken position.

            In fact, it is an indication of having reached adulthood and maturity of person when such responsibility is taken into account at all time.

            People have the right to speak in a free and open society, but such a right means nothing if responsibilities are not directly tied to what is being said.

          • I don’t believe this is always the case. There are positions that may well be correct, but people may be unwilling or unable to entertain for fear of social censure. If our concern is figuring out truth, then this type of self-censorship is detrimental to the process, because the censorship interferes with the investigation of truth.

            Frankly, I think that having all of the MPs at the House of Commons debate anonymously could well improve quality of debate, since MPs would be able to asset the merits of legislation without having to worry about scoring points for Team Conservative, Team Liberal, or Team NDP.

            Of course, when it is time to vote, then it is important for MPs to stand and let their positions be known. But for the actual debate itself, the association with a particular side is a hindrance because MPs are more concerned about party politics than about drafting good bills.

          • That’s one opinion – yours. And it might be a valid one.

            There are many opinions out there on the topic. And no doubt many of those might be valid ones.

            The fact remains, however, that responsibility can only be assigned when the person doing the talking is to be held responsible for their words. How else would we know who or what to vote for???

            For instance, when Mulcair gave his anti-Canadian speech in Washington, I want him to be held responsible for that he’s said.

          • And he is responsible for it because he said it publicly. He gets whatever credit is due to him for making statements or taking positions that are laudable, and gets whatever blame is due to him for statements or positions that are reprehensible. The anonymous commentator receives neither accolades nor condemnation–or, at least, receives them to a much, much lesser degree. This is a feature, not a bug. It lets people engage in candid discussions, off the record, in order to figure out what the best positions ought to be.

            There are certainly situation where, I agree, it’s important, even necessary, to put your name on your beliefs, your values, your statements. But there are other times where anonymity provides a shield behind which we can look for truth without fear of unfair reprisals against us. There are reasons why we do things like anonymous surveys, voting by secret ballot, etc.

          • But have a look at comment boards everywhere! There is not use trying to get something civilized going, because so many fake-namers just spout lies and non sense. Comment boards are becoming nothing but bullying sites, and today is ‘stop bullying’ day! Go figure.

            I am certain that if people were required to use their real name when commenting, that the comment boards would actually be very useful for debating purposes.

            Now, what we are left with, is a comment board community just filled with bullies who are much to timid to express their opinions in honesty, with real responsibility attached.

            I understand the points you try to bring across, but it won’t change the facts that comment boards are shaping up to be just new grounds for bullies to strutt their ware!

          • I don’t see that the quality of commentary from named commentators to be any better, on average, than those that are anonymous. But honestly, I don’t pay particularly close attention, because I don’t care whether they’re using their real names or not, so you may be right.

            I think the key to a good forum has more to do with the quality of the moderation. I’ve seen (and participate in) a handful of comment boards with anonymous commentators, but active moderators that both participate in the discussions, and don’t tolerate BS when it arises (which is fairly uncommon, actually). You enforce responsibility, but only within the context of the board itself. If user Wao3eh89 is causing problems, then you warn/suspend/ban that account depending on the offense, and do so based on its IP address so that user can’t (easily) just create a new account and rejoin immediately.

          • Thanks for that info. I appreciate it,

          • No, they do not. There are still living, breathing, thinking people behind the comments. Just because some trolls abuse their anonymous persona, doesn’t mean all pseudonymous commenters are trolls.

          • I have never said that all pseudonymous commenters are trolls. Please stop putting words in my mouth.

            People using a fake name on comment boards can still comment, but that is not the point under discussion. The point under discussion is the fact that fake-name commenters do not have to be responsible for what they say, as a rule, because, as a rule, they do not have to be brought into association with those comments IN REAL LIFE!

            There is no connection with what one says under a fake name and what one stands for in real life.


          • There is a connection. I feel responsible for the things I type here and elsewhere. Trolls don’t. Bad-mouthing people with pen names as cowards, or irresponsible, and having “no connection” to their views paints a pretty stark picture. I hope you don’t actually believe this. It’s a very black-and-white view.

          • You may feel responsible for the things you type here and elsewhere, but even that statement I could never ever verify because nowhere could I find out who you actually are.

            Only you will know who briguyhfx is. And you ask everyone else to blindly trust you with what you say (for instance that you do feel responsible), but in fact no one will ever really know except you.

          • Hfyvjegmvhdmfh

          • If what I say is logical, you don’t need blind trust, just an ability to read and comprehend. That’s the nature of discussion and argumentation. I logically reject a large amount of what I read on the internet, regardless of whether the writer is using a pseudonym or using their real name, simply because what’s been written is silly claptrap. (Or their “real name”, in cases like Rick Omen).

          • How is it illogical? I am making statements on subjects I have opinions about. You can judge those statements. Looking at the name before deciding whether those statements make sense to you is akin to appealing to authority (I guess it’s the opposite of appealing to authority). I could just as easily be posting under a fake name that looks real to add weight to my ideas, like our functionally dishonest friend Rick.

          • But when nameless people make statements, even if those statements are being based on logic, then such statements are just theoretical statements. No where could those statements be tied into real life.

            Take for instance this example: When I watched At Issue this morning, I could hear what the panelists had to say. Those panelists then go on to report the news or write opinions about the news in the future.

            But we can also know who those people are employed by, or are associated with (to a certain extent). That then leaves a trail of who those people are by what they say and do!

            Politics is not just about logic; politics is about optics, and is about building impressions. Why does Peter Mansbridge say the things he says, or why does Andrew Coyne say the things he says? Where does he come from. Who do these men have allegiances to, and so forth.

            If the discussions on At Issue, for instance, would be nameless, such discussion would be tied into nothing at all. Now the panelists have to be careful about what they say, because their opinions are to be tied to them and to reality. For the last couple of months on At Issue, nothing positive has been said about Harper or his government. So be it. But at least the viewers do have a sense of who has said what and therefore the opinion makers build a personality around themselves while they are building a personality of parliamentarians. There is an interplay between those who do the opinion making and those who are being opinionated about. The two sides do not exist in a vacuum. The two sides (opinion makers and the politicians) exist because they form each other, and if one side (the politician) must be known (for they are real) then the other side (the opinion makers) must be real also (must be known). We cannot pretend to insist that the politician must be real and must be known, but such real and known politician should then be expected to stand opposed to an unreal and unknown opponent. Such unbalanced interplay between parties (opinion makers and the politician) would be bad for our democracy, not good.

  2. Typical Burke overreaction.

  3. Internet experts on TV in the past week said that Burke’s lawyers will be able to find out….Take some time…may know already….and Hazel Mae’s lawyers may know also….
    Problem with the internet….one can hide behind technology….and the ‘lemmings’ who read this stuff believe this junk…Internet should also be part of the lawsuit.

    Dead men do not tell any lies….Just a matter of time before someone is KILLED….Same with the paparazzi….Remember years ago when Princess Anne’s driver hit a photographer breaking his leg….Her response was ‘the next time it will be both legs & his skull’ Nobody has bothered her since…. Steve M

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