It’s the Wild West of the Internet. And it’s ugly.
On so-called ‘shameful websites’, anonymous visitors call people some of the worst names in the book – racist, pedophile, floozie, drug addict, thief, home wrecker, fraudster, gold digger, scumbag, stalker, bad payer.
The messages include the victims’ full names, their photo, their city – and a long list of grim allegations disguised as facts. Names and cities can be searched.
These are not celebrity gossip sites. These are places where people destroy ordinary and ordinary people, no proof of allegations is required.
A recent Kitchener court case listed 10 disgraceful sites. A single site smears tens of thousands of people.
The sites are based in the United States, but many Canadians are tainted by it. Toxic messages can target your friend, your colleague, yourself.
One article refers to an “obviously racist pedophile” who is constantly on his computer “looking for teenagers to attract”. Another names a “cheating lying criminal stripper” who was allegedly caught with date rape drugs. And another claims a woman is a “judgmental dope head / dead mother”.
Successfully suing sites for defamation or having a post removed is nearly impossible. The sites claim freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the US Constitution and immunity from content posted by users.
Probably the best avenue is to sue the person who posted the lies, which is exactly what a woman from Kitchener did.
Superior Court Judge Donald Gordon, sitting in Kitchener, last week ordered Brampton woman Cassidy LeBlanc to pay her $125,000 in damages for posting defamatory statements on social media and websites. Shameful web. Anonymous posts on the website have been traced back to LeBlanc, which isn’t always easy to do.
This may be the first time in Ontario that someone has been awarded damages for being defamed on a disgraceful website.
Although the judge ordered LeBlanc to delete the posts, at least one remained in place on Friday.
“Shameful websites encourage the publication of vile rumors about others with no apparent regard for the truth,” the victim’s attorney, Mark Radulescu of GGFI Law LLP in Kitchener, said in an email to The Record.
“The owners and defenders of these sites are waving the flag of ‘free speech’ – reasonable people may disagree on whether this justifies the existence of these sites. However, even a cursory glance at these sites shows that their content is toxic.
The companies that run the websites appear to be immune from lawsuits.
In 2013, a former NFL cheerleader was awarded $338,000 by a US jury after a shameful website published alleged details of her sexual history. The jury found the details to be mostly wrong.
But an appeals court later overturned a judge’s decision to allow the lawsuit to continue. The decision “further strengthens the broad immunities enjoyed by internet service providers for content posted by third parties,” the Associated Press reported.
In its ‘terms of service’, a disgraceful website washes its hands of any legal liability.
“Because they are unverified, the messages may contain false or inaccurate information,” the site states, adding that it “makes no representations or warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or authenticity of the information or opinion…”
He warns the posters: “Publishing false statements may… expose the author to significant civil and/or criminal liability. Only post factually true information or personal opinions clearly marked as such.
It also encourages posters to “exercise restraint and common decency”. Few follow the guideline.
Radulescu said it was difficult for a Canadian to successfully sue a US site for defamation.
“It’s not easy to enforce a Canadian judgment in the United States,” he said. “Determining whether a Canadian judgment can be enforced across the border can involve a complex assessment and the criteria vary from state to state.
US law is generally “more protective of free speech than Canadian law,” Radulescu said.
“The laws of both countries recognize that there are limits to free speech, but they differ as to where they draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable speech. Shameful websites have, in US court decisions, successfully invoked the Communications Decency Act to escape liability for content posted by users on their websites.
If shaming sites were based in Canada, “it would be much easier to compel them to remove defamatory posts and, in some cases, to sue the sites themselves for damages,” he said.
“It’s no wonder these websites are hosted in the United States, where the laws are favorable to their operations.”