Lawsuits threaten to chill online freedom of expression

(Additional information on p2pnet)


Lawsuits threaten to chill online freedom of expression

TORONTO, ONTARIO and LAKE COWICHAN, BRITISH COLUMBIA - In May, one of the Internet's most notorious companies, and one of its most controversial personalities, sued a blogger from this tiny community on Vancouver Island. Sharman Networks, the Australia-based owner of the KaZaA file-sharing application, and Sharman CEO Nikki Hemming, launched a suit against Canadian Jon Newton, alleging that an article he posted to his Web site, and readers' comments in response to it, were libelous. The plaintiffs also demanded the identity of the anonymous posters.

Canadian defamation law does not require a plaintiff to show that she has suffered damages to sue. It also presumes that if speech appears libelous, it is until proven otherwise. The onus is on the defendant to prove that the speech is either not defamatory or that it should be allowed in the public interest.

"Canadian libel law in effect says 'Guilty until proven innocent' and if the plaintiff wins, in my view, Canadian bloggers might as well pack up and close their Net accounts," says Newton.

Newton is not alone in his feeling that Canadian defamation law is antiquated and in need of an Internet-age refit.

Michael Pilling, the Toronto-based founder of the political discussion site, also found himself on the receiving end of a libel suit after a contributor posted an article on his site about Green Party financier, Wayne Crookes. When Crookes claimed parts of the posting disparaged him and were untrue, Pilling edited it, only to have the reader repost the content shortly afterwards. When Crookes objected again, Pilling explained how Crookes could use the site to contribute his own point of view.

"Democracy requires open debate. The purpose of my site is to give everyone an opportunity to express their position, and hope people start listening to each other," explained Pilling. "Instead, I was served with a lawsuit."

Newton and Pilling have decided to defend their respective actions because they feel that the rights of Canadian bloggers to freedom of expression are in serious danger. They have agreed to work together to raise awareness of the issue.

"Of course freedom of expression has to be balanced against other rights, but the law is pernicious. Anyone who runs a blog, a wiki site or an online discussion forum in Canada is in jeopardy of what someone else might say," says Pilling. "A mere allegation of unproved libel will cost thousands to defend against, regardless of whether the speech is true, you wrote it or were even necessarily aware of it."

"The Internet enables expression as never before, and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is supposed to guarantee freedom of expression." adds Newton, "Defamation laws should not be available as weapons. Our laws need to reflect a greater sensibility."

To raise awareness, Pilling and Newton will be participating in a public roundtable on freedom of expression in Toronto on August 5th at the Centre for Social Innovation, 215 Spadina Avenue, Suite 120, from 3-5PM. A benefit concert will be held at Toronto landmark, The Rivoli, at 334 Queen Street West. Doors open at 9PM. Cover is $10.

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