The Internet has given everyone a voice - whether on Facebook, in a chat room, or in a forum. This is not always a good thing…
There are a few types of online posters.
Some posters try to make intelligent comments and conversation. Others post online for therapy, telling the world their every thought (with little filter). Others are more interested in ‘stirring the pot’, simply trying to irritate and annoy other people by posting inflammatory, threatening, and off-topic comments. These people are referred to as ‘trolls’. Most trolls are harmless (and are likely children).
Whatever your intentions when posting online, it is important to know that the worst thing that can happen to you is not a ‘slap on the wrist’ from the forum or website moderator/administrator. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Believe it or not, there can be legal consequences.
To start, there can be criminal consequences when posting comments online.
If you have viewed a thread or visited a chat room, you have probably seen posters act completely ridiculous with each other, even threatening each other. I have seen comments like, “You better hope that we never meet in person because you will be very sorry”. This type of comment could lead to a criminal charge. For more information, you can review section 264 (criminal harassment) and section 264.1 (uttering threats) of the Criminal Code.
While criminal penalties can be bad, civil (i.e. financial) penalties can be even worse. Depending on the amount of money that you could be forced to pay, you could be wishing that you had been taken to criminal court…
A common lawsuit made against Internet posters is for defamation of character. A few weeks ago, I wrote about defamation: Sued for spreading rumours? For easy reference, a defamation lawsuit follows when a person makes a communication (written or spoken) about another person/organization that hurts the reputation of that person/organization.
And for your information, just because a poster is anonymous in his/her postings does not mean that he/she is immune from liability. People’s real names can and will be located from their ISP (internet service provider). Hiding your name is ineffective.
To illustrate that posters should be careful, consider the following case: Uppal v Diler,  O. J. No. 2713. In this case, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice (Small Claims Court) awarded $22,000 for a plaintiff dentist against the dentist’s former patient. The former patient had sent defamatory emails, uploaded postings on YouTube, and made statements on the website for the Association of Dentists (about the dentist). The Court held that the former patient was deliberately campaigning to harass the dentist and smear his reputation. Interestingly, the Court said that it would have awarded $45,000.00, but the dentist did not seek this amount in his claim.
Also, for your information, websites hosting threads/forums need to be careful, too, in ensuring that defamatory comments are not posted on their websites. If defamatory comments are present on a website (about a company or a person), that website may receive demand letters (from that company or person), requesting that the defamatory comments be removed. It may wise to conform to such letters; while unpopular, it may be financially-wise.
Outside of civil and criminal consequences, your postings can haunt you in other ways (so be careful).
For instance, there are numerous examples of people being fired for posting about their employer. Remember Mark Jen? He was fired from Google after 11 days for posting on his blog about Google, which included comparing Google to his former employer, Microsoft.
Also consider that in personal injury cases, it is not uncommon for ICBC to rely on photos that motor vehicle crash victims post on Facebook. These photographs, of course, show the victim smiling, which ICBC argues is indicative that the victim is not ‘that hurt’ (because people who have soft-tissue injuries never smile, right?). As silly as it may seem to rely on Facebook photos, it happens.
The Quebec Superior Court said it best in Laforest c. Collins, 2012 QCCS 3078: “The Web has become the most powerful and frequently used medium of communication on earth. It permits wars to be halted quickly, criminals to be quickly captured. Teaching has no limit. Communication can be personal as well as impersonal. The Web can make anyone a celebrity in a few minutes. It can tarnish or destroy a reputation with one click.”
Finally, outside of the legal consequences, Internet posters should be respectful in their posts. It’s like going to a party: just because there isn’t a law that says you should be respectful and considerate, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be.
**The information contained in this column should not be treated by readers as legal advice and should not be relied on without detailed legal counsel being sought.