NEWS

Court Forces Disclosure Of Hidden Online Identity

06/20/2012 03:11 EDT | Updated 08/20/2012 05:12 EDT

A Moncton blogger won a legal victory to have the name of an anonymous online commenter revealed and now is after an apology.

Brian Cormier, a freelance writer and blogger, spent months and thousands of dollars in legal fees to track down the name of the individual who, he alleges, “spread lies” about him on the internet.

Cormier went to court to get the actual name of a Twitter user that went by the name “ProfessorTanked.” He said ProfessorTanked sent him an email and posted intimidating messages about him on Twitter.

“I thought the guy would go away,” Cormier said.

“It just kept escalating and escalating and escalating to the point where, ‘I'm going to show up.’ And I'm like, ‘Whoa, that is not OK.”

The tipping point came on Oct. 23, 2011, when ProfessorTanked posted on Twitter:

- "can't wait till next rotary meeting. I'm bringing a mouthpiece"

- "oops i meant megaphone"

- "see you soon! #rotary#briancormier"

Cormier said he found those comments intimidating because he said boxers wear mouthpieces when they go into the ring to fight.

And he said he still didn’t know who this person was.

Cormier said on his blog he believes his views contained in his newspaper column made him a target for the online comments.

Cormier also said on his blog he used an email sent to him by ProfessorTanked to locate the individual's computer. Cormier said he traced the email to a computer at Spielo Gaming International in Moncton.

But the company would not release the name of the individual because of privacy laws.

So Cormier hired a lawyer and went to court to have the name released.

Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Stephen McNally issued an order on March 12 for Speilo to release the name of the individual who sent the email.

On March 14, Speilo sent Cormier a letter saying ProfessorTanked was Mark DeBow.

DeBow declined an interview on Tuesday to discuss the matter.

But he has confirmed he sent one email to Cormier and that he goes by the name Professor Tanked online.

DeBow said when Cormier contacted the company where he was working, it jeopardized his job. He said he got angry and lashed out on Twitter.

Online anonymity not absolute

Michael Boudreau, a criminology professor at St. Thomas University, said many people believe they can say whatever they want online and then hide behind a false identity.

Boudreau said people get carried away when they don't think people will ever find out who they are.

"There are ways to have rational debates, as well, but oftentimes these debates quickly descend into shouting matches online," Boudreau said.

"Sometimes we lose a sense of rationality about what point it is we're trying to make and ultimately we're just trying to win an argument and say some very nasty things about individuals."

Boudreau said freedom of expression is a charter right in Canada but it is not absolute.

He said people have to realize that even though they are online and using a pseudonym, they can be held accountable for defaming people or inciting hatred.

He expects there will be an increasing number of cases like Brian Cormier's, where people fight anonymous online comments.

"Rather than criminalize speech you basically challenge that speech," Boudreau said, "If someone says something about an individual, rather than just say nothing, you stand up for yourself which is what we're seeing in (Cormier's) case."

Compensation sought

Cormier said on his blog that he prepared a letter on April 4 demanding compensation, an apology and the removal of the Twitter account.

The Twitter account was shut down on June 19. But Cormier said on his blog that he feels DeBow has “no intention of taking this matter seriously.”

Cormier’s fight to uncover the identity of DeBow came at a significant cost.

He had to pay $7,500 in legal fees to find out his name.

“I want an apology. I want him to pay my legal bills,” he said.

“The only way I could find out who he was to go to court. The only way I could defend myself. He says he's going to confront me in public. How else was I going to find his name without going to court?”

The blogger said he wants his case to show that people do not have the right to post whatever they want on the internet and hide behind fictional identities.

“When you start a campaign anonymously against someone, you're going to go too far. You just are. Unfortunately he went too far and now he's been caught. And unfortunately in my opinion he's not taking this seriously at all,” he said.

Monica Johnson, a Moncton lawyer, said Cormier’s case shows that people are not truly anonymous when they make comments online.

“A lot of people feel that they do have the right to freely express themselves independently of what they're saying anonymously. And so people feel that way but there's not really legislation or structure established to do that,” she said.

Cormier has sent DeBow a letter outlining his demands. He has two years to sue DeBow unless they settle before then.