Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Web Privacy? What Web Privacy?

A judge has ordered Free Dominion, the Canadian counterpart to Free Republic, to release the records of its anonymous forum posters in order to enable a lawsuit by Richard Warman. The release will mean the end of anonymity for all practical purposes in Canada, as well as an end to privacy for Free Dominion itself, which must also produce all its hosting agreements and ownership information as well. The judge offered this ironic justification for his order:
[33] In the case before the court, we are dealing with an anti-hate speech advocate and Defendants whose website is so controversial that it is blocked to employees of the Ontario Public Service.
That’s the threshold for privacy in Canada? Anyone styling themselves as an “anti-hate speech advocate” can raid the records of a web community he doesn’t like? Note also the circular reasoning here employed by Judge Stanley Kersham. If the government sees fit to block a website from its employees at some level, then it’s permissible to strip them of their rights to privacy and speech at any point.
Technically, Warman doesn't win much. (Except for the $5000, awarded to him by the judge.) Despite the ruling, he won't be able to determine the identity of those anonymous posters that are listed as "co-defendants" in his law suit against Free Dominion, since the forum has long stopped tracking posters' IP addresses and most of the e-mail addresses in its database are out of date. Still that ruling sets a dangerous precedent, as no confidentiality agreement between a user and a website owner or an ISP is now guaranteed. Any private information which we enter online (from e-mail addresses and telephone numbers to the SIN and credit card info,) may under certain circumstances be disclosed to the public.

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