Online Anonymity in English

Kathy English discusses this past weekend in The Star some of the issues of online commenting which have been raised here recently,

Would you be willing to express your opinions under your real names?

Can news organizations find a way to compel online commenters to speak out under their true identities? Should the media ever unmask anonymous commenters? Can the courts force them to do so? Should they?

Most importantly, is the end of online anonymity near?

These are important questions now under consideration in news organizations and courts throughout North America. This week, a Nova Scotia judge ordered both Google and a weekly newspaper called the Coast to provide information about the identities of people who posted anonymous critical comments about the Halifax fire chief and his deputy.

It’s one thing for sites like Slaw to deliberate online commenting policies (and liabilities), but it’s an entirely different endeavour for media magnates like The Star, the largest print publication in Canada.

But will the courts treat them differently, and if so, how?


  1. In the end I believe that anonymity will only be something that crooks, stalkers, paedofiles and people who are slagging other people online will want to keep.

    It is gradually getting to people that a good personal Reputation can only be actively worked on when you use your name online. Personally I don’t usually communicate with people who only use a pseudonym. How are you supposed to build up trust with someone who is not willing to say they are?

  2. Michael,

    With respect, I will disagree with you. Free speech can only be assured through a guarantee anonymity. There are many things people will not say under their true names for fear of ridicule, ostracization, and yes, even legal action. That does not mean that what these people are saying is not important, valuable and needed for democratic discourse.

    To remove the cloak of anonymity from someone exercising their Charter rights should require a very high burden of proof on the person trying to do the uncloaking. Otherwise, what kind of democracy are we?

    Incidentally, it is well within your rights not to engage people who don’t use their real names in discussion.

  3. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay managed to earn a great deal of respect despite writing under pseudonyms. What difference does it make whether you are writing under the name “William Shakespeare” or “Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford”?

    Lawyers are notorious for reserving judgment on whether someone is competent until they have been able to perform due diligence by assessing their pedigree.

  4. There are excellent arguments in favour of anonymity to avoid political or social persecution for unpopular views. Courts need to balance the value of such purposes against the much less valuable anonymous defamation.

    Presumably The Star is smart enough not to claim that anonymity is good at all times for all purposes – but blanket anoymity makes The Star’s job easier … in a way.

    It has been said that strong laws of defamation support the credibility of the press, in part because it makes the press work harder to check their stories, and in part because the readers think ‘if they were not very sure of that, or if they did not have good evidence of that, they would not dare print it.’

  5. Thanks John G.
    Ivor Shapiro of The Canadian Journalism Project pointed that out just last week, that fear libel action is “a useful corrective against recklessness.” He quoted the British Journalism Review,

    Investigative journalism – ignore for now the question of whether
 other kinds really exist – is intended to be harmful. And only being afraid 
gives you any moral justification for the practice. You at least incur some risk
 roughly related to that you seek to impose on your quarry. It is not a very 
sturdy justification, because a reporter’s work, if it’s genuine, consists of 
pushing into the unknown, with consequences obviously impossible to
 foresee. You may hope to do harm in order to do good, but the outcome can 
quite readily be only harm.

  6. William Dalrymple

    Free speech is free speech regardless of anonymity. To be concerned about “legal action” means that your speech is not free but if speech is free then to worry about ridicule or ostracization is to reject personal accountability for your words and makes you a coward. Just because your words may be unpopular doesn’t mean your speech isn’t free. If you have something to say in public then own your words. The defamation laws do not hinder free speech; they protect the targets of that free speech from recklessness as stated above by Omar and John G.