Protecting internet anonymity: the case for providing notice to anonymous defendants in defamation cases

An open issue in Canadian internet defamation law is whether courts should require that anonymous defendants be given notice of, and an opportunity to oppose, applications to compel the disclosure of their identities by third parties such as websites and internet service providers (“ISPs”). Because applications to compel disclosure are generally left unchallenged by third parties who would rather evade the costly cross-fire of litigation, courts have tended to review such applications ex parte. The concern in these cases is that anonymous defendants may be stripped of their anonymity – and thereby subjected to embarrassment, social stigma, or harm to their career prospects – all without an initial opportunity to anonymously submit a written response or retain counsel to oppose the application. This post discusses the status of a notice requirement in Canadian, American, and English law and evaluates the different approaches.

1. Canadian Law

Only one Canadian case has commented on the appropriateness of a notice requirement. In York University v. Bell Canada Enterprises, [2009] O.J. No. 3689 (S.C.J.) (“York University”) a plaintiff sought pre-action discovery by way of an equitable bill of discovery known as a Norwich Order. The Ontario Superior Court of Justice granted the Norwich Order, which required ISPs to disclose information necessary for the plaintiff to obtain the identity of the anonymous author of allegedly defamatory emails and web postings. Justice G.R. Strathy noted that it might be appropriate to impose a notice requirement, but declined to do so without providing reasons:

[I]t may be appropriate, in a given case, to require that the unknown publisher of the offending material be given notice of the proceedings. It does not appear to have been done as a matter of course in other Norwich order cases and I did not consider it necessary to do so in this case.

York University was discussed by other commentators in two excellent blog posts on Slaw: the first generally outlining the case, and the second commenting on specific points including the notice issue.

2. English law

The appropriateness of a notice requirement has received more attention in English law. In Totalise plc v The Motley Fool, [2001] E.M.L.R. 29 (H.C.), [2002] 1 W.L.R. 1233 (C.A.) (“Totalise”), the English Court of Appeal described the rationale for a notice requirement. In that case, Justice Owen of the English High Court first granted a Norwich Order that compelled a website operator to reveal the identifying information of an anonymous defendant that posted allegedly defamatory statements about the plaintiff. When the case was appealed on the issue of costs, Justice Aldous noted in obiter that it would have been desirable to require the third party to give the anonymous defendant notice of the application and then allow the anonymous defendant to make written submissions through the third party in order to better inform the court’s decision:

It is difficult to see how the court can carry out this task [i.e. whether to grant the requested order] if what it is refereeing is a contest between two parties, neither of whom is the person most concerned, the data subject; one of whom is the data subject’s prospective antagonist; and the other of whom knows the data subject’s identity, has undertaken to keep it confidential so far as the law permits, and would like to get out of the cross-fire as rapidly and as cheaply as possible. However the website operator can, where appropriate, tell the user what is going on and to offer to pass on in writing to the claimant and the court any worthwhile reason the user wants to put forward for not having his or her identity disclosed.  Further, the court could require that to be done before making an order.  Doing so will enable the court to do what is required of it with slightly more confidence that it is respecting the law laid down in more than one statute by Parliament and doing no injustice to a third party, in particular not violating his convention rights.

Although the obiter from Totalise is compelling, English courts have yet to impose a notice requirement. In the recent case of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club Ltd v. Hargreaves, [2007] EWHC 2375 (Q.B.) a justice of the English High Court dealt with a similar case and, after considering Totalise, concluded in the absence of reasons that

It did not seem to me that this was a case where I should require that the website users [i.e. the anonymous defendants] be contacted before making an order.

3. American law

American law, by contrast, strongly supports a notice requirement. In the leading case of Dendrite International, Inc. v. John Doe No. 3, 775 A.2d 756 (N.J. App. Div. 2001) (“Dendrite”), a New Jersey appellate court articulated a series of requirements for plaintiffs to meet before a court would order disclosure. The first of these requires that the plaintiff make efforts to notify the anonymous defendant that they are the subject of an application for an order to disclose their identities so that the defendants have a reasonable opportunity to respond:

We hold that when such an application is made, the trial court should first require the plaintiff to undertake efforts to notify the anonymous posters that they are the subject of a subpoena or application for an order of disclosure, and withhold action to afford the fictitiously-named defendants a reasonable opportunity to file and serve opposition to the application. These notification efforts should include posting a message of notification of the identity discovery request to the anonymous user on the ISP’s pertinent message board.

Several notable American cases have adopted the same or similar notice requirements post-Dendrite: Doe No. 1 v. Cahill, 884 A.2d 451 (Del. 2005); Mobilisa, Inc. v. Doe 1, 170 P.3d 712 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2007); Krinsky v. Doe 6, 72 Cal. Rptr. 3d 231 (Ct. App. 2008) (“Krinsky”); Solers, Inc. v. Doe, 977 A.2d 941 (D.C. 2009) and Swartz v. Does (“Swartz“) (Swartz, the most recent of these cases, was discussed in a previous post).

4. Analysis

Although both English and American jurisprudence supports a notice requirement, the approaches differ: while Totalise advocates imposing the requirement on third parties, Dendrite and subsequent American cases have consistently imposed the burden on plaintiffs. The problem with the later approach is that plaintiffs are generally in a relatively poor position to give reliable notice because, unlike third parties, they lack access to the defendant’s contact information. As a result, Dendrite and subsequent American cases have merely required plaintiffs to provide indirect notice by posting on the ISP’s pertinent message board, by posting on the same website or medium used by the anonymous defendant to publish the statements at issue, or, if the statements originated in an email, by sending notice to the anonymous defendant’s email address. The concern with these types of notice is their unreliability. There is no guarantee that a defendant will check these sources, or that the website or medium will still exist by the time the plaintiff commences action. And, in the case of email, a similar concern still exists due to the increasingly common use of disposable email accounts that defendants may abandon after sending allegedly defamatory statements.

Yet, imposing the burden of notice on plaintiffs may have some notable benefits. Unlike the approach advocated in Totalise wherein third parties would directly notify anonymous defendants, plaintiffs under the Dendrite approach generally have no choice but to provide indirect notice by posting in a publicly accessible forum. The public nature of a plaintiff’s notice will expose the matter to the oxygen of publicity and may affect the extent of the plaintiff’s reputational harm, depending on the context. In some cases, public scrutiny might result in further reputational harm if the public perceives the plaintiff to be unjustifiably attempting to silence the anonymous defendant. In other cases, however, public scrutiny might serve to alleviate the existing reputational harm by calling into question the veracity of the statements. Third parties might even be persuaded to mount a defence against a plaintiff’s application in cases where there is significant public support in favour of an anonymous defendant but they lack the resources to defend their anonymity.

Another option is to require both the plaintiff and the third party to provide notice. Although this approach would increase the reliability of notice and preserve the beneficial qualities of plaintiff-based notice, the approach seems redundant in the absence of evidence to suggest that the benefits of dual notification outweigh the costs. This is likely one of the reasons why the California appellate court in Krinsky rejected the notion of requiring a plaintiff to provide notice where a third party had already voluntarily done so:

When ISPs and message-board sponsors (such as Yahoo!) themselves notify the defendant that disclosure of his or her identity is sought, notification by the plaintiff should not be necessary.

In summary, a notification requirement imposes a relatively light burden on plaintiffs or third parties while providing defendants with the valuable opportunity to defend their anonymity and better inform the courts’ decision. Although a plaintiff-based approach may have some ancillary benefits, a third party approach provides more reliable notice and should be preferred because it best furthers the primary rationale underlying notice requirements.

Originally posted on Defamation Law Blog

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