The advent, and the subsequent rapid development, of Internet generated journalism, opinions and posts in blogs; forums and group message boards has the Court system, government agencies, and perhaps also our own societal norms scrambling to catch-up.
In recent years, bloggers, unconventional sources and questionable stories have placed enormous stress on "legitimate" journalistic organizations. In North America; radio has essentially abandoned its traditional news gathering role in favour of talk and opinion formats frequently of some questionable validity. Once dominant newspapers and their ownership chains have been decimated by the trend to on-line journalism. Television news operators, particularly the "all-news" channels, have been forced to dump staff and reduce costs, all-the-while stuffing their news cycles with FaceBook, My Space, Skype and Twitter chatter from their own viewers to make-up the shortfall.
Lest I digress; even a recently published commentary on Leader Michael Ignatieff's, "Liberal Express" national tour questions why he is on a face-to-face tour to meet with voters, and eschewed the modern "web" way of reaching the same audience by staying at home in the relative privacy of a computer keyboard, webcam and screen.
The Federal Government is assessing a pilot project it launched last spring to refute Internet information deemed incorrect or questionable. There is some danger there: Not everyone is likely to agree with Ottawa's definition of "on-line" misinformation. What seems to be clear though is that the next time someone posts an opinion in an Internet forum such as FaceBook, they may very well receive a rebuttal from an employee of the Federal government.
Of course there is some legitimacy to worries about government employees being paid to monitor on-line chatter and post comments. But, in early April the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) paid a Toronto company $75,000 to monitor social activity and identify areas where information was being presented about the always controversial east coast Seal-Hunt. Once alerted about questionable on-line comments, employees at Foreign Affairs and/or Fisheries and Oceans posted comments, including views the Government considered more consistent with Canada's position.
That may be just the tip of the iceberg. A spokesperson for DFAIT described the Seal-Hunt initiative as just part of an effort ..."to establish foundations and recommendations for future programs and campaigns to use social media as another way to listen to, inform and engage with Canadians."
On the other front: Twice now, Courts in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have issued orders which restrict the limits of anonymity and privacy on the Internet. Most recently, the New Brunswick Court of Queen's Bench ordered the publishers of the Moncton "Times and Transcript" to reveal the identity of an anonymous commenter after the target of the post launched a defamation suit. The Judge ruled the plaintiff's rights would be violated unless he knew the identity of his accuser. In Nova Scotia in April, a Halifax weekly, "The Coast", was ordered to release all the information it had to identify seven anonymous commenters who had posted on-line allegations of racism, cronyism and incompetence at the Halifax Fire Department.
Last fall in Ottawa, SLAW.CA which deals with legal matters, launched an effort to reveal the identity of the blogger behind "Zero Means Zero", an insider's look at the administration of controversial Mayor Larry O'Brien. The blogger has since stopped his postings and the blog appears to have been removed.
As clearly it should have, privacy on the Internet has its limits. Recent anecdotal evidence suggest that there is a diminishing appetite on the part of websites, Internet providers and social media sites to protect people who are posting anonymously. In his own recent post; former CBC colleague and Visiting Professor of Journalism at Ryerson, Jeffrey Dvorkin, questions the media's rush to publish the photos of some G-20 rioters provided by the police. He argues that while some photos clearly show acts of vandalism, others of head and shoulder shots don't reveal any evidence of law-breaking beyond the say-so of authorities. The sources of some photos (From cellphone cameras for instance) may be questionable; and Professor Dvorkin raises the danger of citizen journalism of almost any nature verging on vigilantism.
Though the debate about access to new technology and the phenomenon of social media's impact on society is far from over; people should think twice before posting anything on the Internet because they can almost always be identified. Those recent east coast legal decisions mean people posting comments or nebulous photos on the web can't expect to have, nor do they have, a lot of privacy.