About the Issue
The Internet has become a powerful tool for expression. It gives individuals the potential to send messages worldwide, and opens up new avenues for debate and dialogue. The Internet does not respect national boundaries; attempts to regulate content online, by governments, corporations or individuals, are fraught with challenges.
CCLA believes that the Internet is a vital part of a modern democracy and its commitment to free expression. The anonymity that the Internet can provide can also allow marginalized or traditionally silenced groups and individuals a chance to be heard. The legal regulation of the Internet is a modern challenge and CCLA is watching closely to ensure freedom of expression and personal privacy are preserved as this area continues to develop.
Why This Matters
While Canada has enjoyed a relatively open Internet to date, restrictions on freedom of expression online can take different forms. There are general laws restricting free expression that apply online, like hate speech, obscenity and defamation legislation. The Canadian government’s attempts to address online criminal activity have sometimes threatened free expression, anonymity and personal privacy, with efforts to engage in surveillance or monitoring of the internet posing a significant threat. CCLA is also interested in the policies and protocols used by private corporations, that now have a significant say in deciding what content is available to users. Internet privacy and the right to free expression online are closely linked, and CCLA works to protect and promote both of these important values.
CCLA’s work on internet privacy and speech has included important court interventions, appearances before parliamentary committees, education conferences and a crucial piece of privacy litigation which we initiated. The CCLA has actively opposed government attempts to introduce “lawful access” legislation which would increase surveillance online and deprive individuals of important privacy protections that are safeguarded in our Charter. We have raised awareness of online privacy issues among the Canadian public and continue to work to ensure that privacy rights online are meaningfully protected.
CCLA’s strategic intervention in litigation has helped to ensure that privacy and free speech rights are protected online. Our interventions in a number of online defamation cases have helped to shape this area of the law by ensuring that online anonymity cannot be circumvented without compelling reasons. We were also an important voice in the Supreme Court of Canada’s hearing of Crookes v. Newton, a case that dealt with the effect of hyperlinks in defamation suits, and in the hearing of Baglow v. Smith, which dealt with the application of defamation law in the context of blogging.
CCLA has intervened to protect online anonymity in cases involving core freedom of speech rights. In a case heard by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, the former mayor of an Ontario municipality started a lawsuit against local bloggers who were critical of her work in office. As part of the lawsuit, the mayor brought a motion asking the Court to order the known bloggers to reveal identifying information about other anonymous blogger(s). The CCLA intervened to argue that a high threshold should be met before the Court should order the release of this kind of information. The rights of citizens to comment on and criticize the performance of their public officials is of the utmost importance, and civil defamation suits should not be used as a way to silence this kind of expression. The defendants and the CCLA were successful; the Superior Court found that the mayor was not entitled to the identifying information because she had not established a case of defamation on the face of her claim. Importantly, the Court also noted that the bloggers had a reasonable expectation of anonymity since they did not have to identify themselves in order to participate in the blog.
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