People who post defamatory statements on the Internet can be found liable for damages even if their identities are not known at the time of the court hearing.
In Theralase Technologies Inc. v. Lanter, 2020 ONSC 205, the defendants posted defamatory statements on a website that was aimed at investors. The messages were posted under pseudonyms.
The plaintiffs obtained a court order requiring the website to provide the identities of the people who posted the comments. The website was not able to provide the identities due to technical issues, but was able to provide email addresses for all but one of the people.
The plaintiffs were then granted an order to serve the defendants by email and by private message to their accounts on the website.
Only one of the defendants responded to the Statement of Claim. The others were noted in default. The plaintiffs brought a motion for default judgment.
Justice Myers undertook a detailed analysis of whether the court has jurisdiction to grant judgment against unidentified defendants. His Honour stated that, as long as the form of service utilized can reasonably be expected to bring the proceedings to the attention of a specific, identifiable defendant, the court has jurisdiction over that person however he or she may be identified.
Justice Myers indicated that when people hide behind Internet anonymity to make allegedly defamatory comments on a website, service of a claim through the website using the coordinates and the identifiers that the users themselves provided to the website operator is both reasonable and just.
Justice Myers then considered the statements made by the defendants and held that they were defamatory. Since the defendants did not defend the action, they could not justify the comments.
Referring to a Court of Appeal decision, Justice Myers noted that Internet communications have extraordinary capacity for harm. The Internet is potentially a medium of virtually limitless international defamation.
The plaintiffs were granted default judgment. His Honour did not make any findings on how the judgment will be enforced. However, presumably, the plaintiffs will take further steps to attempt to identify the defendants. If the defendants are identified, then the plaintiffs will seek to enforce the judgment.
Overall, if a person makes defamatory statements on the Internet using a pseudonym, and if that person chooses not to defend a lawsuit, there is risk of the court granting judgment in his or her absence.