Brian Burke's lawsuit against anonymous online commenters might seem far-fetched, but Internet privacy-law experts say it should be only a matter of time and money before those identities are revealed.
Mr. Burke, the former general manager and president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, filed a lawsuit Friday with the B.C. Supreme Court alleging defamation against 18 defendants, whose identities are limited to cryptic online handles such as Ncognito, Slobberface and Sir Psycho Sexy.
According to the court filing, comments made between Jan. 12 and Jan. 28, 2013 accused Mr. Burke of having an extramarital affair with Rogers Sportsnet sportscaster Hazel Mae. The court documents say Mr. Burke is suing for losses and damages to his reputation.
Mr. Burke's lawyer, Peter Gall, says they are going to seek orders against the websites and message boards where the comments were made seeking disclosure of anything known about the identities of these people.
"We think of defamation as being printed or said over the radio where you can easily identify who is saying it," Mr. Gall says. "But it's a whole new world with the Internet and it's a little murky legally in terms of how you come to grips with this world."
But revealing anonymous commenters through the Canadian legal system has been done, says Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. But it's "not easily done and most don't have the stomach for it because it can start involving hefty legal fees quickly and it can take considerable amount of effort to do."
American golfer Phil Mickelson went through the process last year. The golfer used the courts to get Quebec-based Internet provider Vidéotron Télécom Ltée to reveal the identity of an online commenter, according to his legal team. The commenter in question had published remarks concerning Mr. Mickelson and his wife on a Yahoo Inc. site.
Marc-André Coulombe, a Montreal-based lawyer who represented Mr. Mickelson, said the legal process is "not the most difficult thing to do, but you have to invest time and do it."
Mr. Coulombe says his team decided not to pursue further legal action against the unmasked individual.
Mr. Gall says his client, Mr. Burke, is not going to give in or give up on this. "We will pursue them until there are no more leads to follow."
He says the damages they would claim would not be large, but would act as a deterrent for future behaviour. "We want to have them acknowledge the untruthfulness of what they've said," Mr. Gall says. Any damages they receive would likely go to charity, he says, they will not be seeking to ban the defendants from publishing future statements on the Internet. Mr. Gall says his client is making a point that the law has to catch up to social media. He says he believes the case has a low likelihood of going to trial.