Unmasking bullies on the Internet.

AuthorBowal, Peter
PositionSpecial Report: Legal Responses to Bullying


Most of us have heard of cyberbullying and the dreadful impact it has had on young people, even driving some of them to suicide. The incidence of bullying online is likely far greater than the average Canadian might expect. As a university professor, I (Bowal) receive menacing and profane emails from anonymous former students presumably unhappy about a course or grade, or perhaps one lecture.

It is easy to set up a free, bogus web-based alias email account and spew forth. A recent study showed that teachers as well as children are the victims of online bullying, with parents responsible for a quarter of the abuse. Forums, emails, blogs, social media, YouTube, complaint websites (such as ComplaintsBoard.com and PissedConsumer.com) and ratings websites (such as TripAdvisor) all provide channels for anonymous expression, and therefore for harassment and bullying of others with apparent impunity.

Brian Burke, the former general manager and president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, recently sued 18 anonymous online commentators, including online aliases such Ncognito, Slobberface and Sir Psycho Sexy. He is alleging defamation after they accused him of an extramarital affair with a named woman.

Most online commentary outlets require registration with a user name and password and agreement to their standards. In 2010, a Halifax weekly newspaper published an article about racism in the Halifax Regional Fire Service. This was followed by dozens of comments posted on the newspaper's website. The Fire Chief and Deputy Chief were publicly accused of racism, cronyism and incompetence by seven anonymous commentators who hid behind names such as "The truth" and "in the know." The two firemen said they could only defend themselves once they knew who the commentators were. In the 2010 case of Mosher v. Coast Publishing Ltd, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ordered the newspaper and two Internet service providers to release the IP addresses and login information that could identify them. The seven commentators were unmasked and became defendants in a defamation suit.

Similarly, a New Brunswick judge ordered a Moncton newspaper to identify an anonymous commentator who allegedly defamed Daryl Doucette, another firefighter. Doucette had written a short Letter to the Editor favouring occasional high speeds for emergency vehicles. The commentator, under the name "Anonymous Anonymous," made two posts on the newspaper's online comment section that offended...

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