Q&A | How to protect your cyber-reputation

CBCNews.ca talks with Robert Currie of the Law and Technology Institute at Dalhousie University in Halifax about what Canadians can do if they find abusive postings about themselves on the internet.
Protecting a person's online reputation in the face of potentially libellous postings can be a difficult, but people can take steps to prevent such situations by being careful about the personal information they share. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

 After Jordin Steele saw an abusive internet post about herself on a California-based website, she was "disgusted," she said.

But the Kamloops, B.C., teen hasn't been able to get the website owners to take the comments down and the RCMP has said there is little police can do about the situation because the website is based in a foreign country.

CBCNews.ca talked with Robert Currie, director of the Law and Technology Institute at Dalhousie University in Halifax, about Steele's case, the legal issues involved and what Canadians can do if they find themselves in a similar situation.

What is the first thing a person should do if they find potentially libellous or hurtful information about themselves posted online?

Robert Currie, director of the Law and Technology Institute at Dalhousie University in Halifax. (Courtesy Robert Currie)

You get in touch with the organization that hosts the website and you tell them that you're disturbed by this content. You would indicate to them quite explicitly what it was that disturbed you.

Many of them do have policies about not putting abusive [content] online. Before you ever go the legal route, the first thing to do is to try to get the organization itself to take it down.

What if they don't respond?

Then you do have to go the legal route.

It's much more difficult to do it when the host or the website is based in another country. Because our courts — it's not to say they don't have jurisdiction over this because they do. The defamatory content is being broadcast into Canada and to an extent, that gives our courts jurisdiction over the matter.

So you could sue this organization for defamation here in Canada. You could go to a Canadian court and say, 'Look, this is published about me. It's defamatory. I'm alleging it's defamatory.'

Now, because the organization, whoever it is you're suing, is in the U.S., they can't be compelled by Canadian law to defend against your claim. They can't be dragged before Canadian courts because we have no jurisdiction to do that, they're in another country.

If they don't defend, you can get a judgment against them in an appropriate amount of damages, whatever the court determines.

Then you're into a very, very expensive process of taking your Canadian judgment to the foreign jurisdiction, which I guess here would be California.

What kind of prospects would a Canadian find in a situation like that?

If you've got the money to pursue it, it can be quite effective. It's a fairly ordinary process in that sense. Courts of one country do enforce the orders of courts from other countries all the time.

You would have to convince the court in California that the Canadian court had jurisdiction over the defamation to begin with.

That can be a pretty sticky matter in some cases, depending on where the server was, where the person who was targeted was, what the audience was and that kind of thing.

But this case is a good example of one that if you had the money to pursue it, you may very well be successful. This woman lives in B.C., she was defamed by an internet site that was broadcast into B.C., or allegedly defamed. The only relevant audience for these remarks is probably her community in B.C., so it would have been clear that the defamation itself, the defamatory content, was targeting Canada.

So you'd probably be able to convince the court of California that the Canadian court did properly have jurisdiction over the dispute. As long as the American entity, whoever it was, was properly served with the legal documents, with the process of the court, then you'd have a good chance of getting it enforced.

The other difficulty you can run into here is we know that ... it's a California-based website. That could mean a bunch of different things. You might go to the office of the so-called company that's operating this website and it might be a room in a building that has a couple of servers in it and that's it.

The company might have no assets because you can do anything from any country as long as you have very basic equipment established. So the people who have any resources at all that you might want to enforce [a court order] against — they might be in Antigua. The American courts are not too bad about enforcing Canadian orders but other courts are not as accommodating.

So all this can become fairly tricky?

Tricky, and in some cases just impossible to accomplish.

There's such a thing as internet-blocking software, but it's not the kind of thing that can be used in any practical sense so it's a hard spot for people to be in.

I see the RCMP here commented the website's in a foreign country [and] there's not much they can do about it. I'm not sure what the RCMP could do about it even if it was here. That doesn't look like a crime. But it does look like defamation.

What is the best way for people to protect their online reputation?

Don't circulate private information on the internet, which sounds like a crazy thing to say in the days of Facebook and Linkedin and social media, but people are far, far too comfortable with posting private information about themselves on the web. As well, they are far too comfortable giving away their private information. If people would be more careful in terms of the information that they circulate, that would help.

Now there's no suggestion in this story that this woman did anything — just that somebody has a hate-on for her, as the saying goes, and posted obviously really horrible, troubling material. So how do you prevent that?

There's not much you can do to prevent it. All you can do is fight as hard as you can to get it taken down and, that said, you can use social media to your advantage in that situation.


Let's say you had a Facebook account and this happened to you and you couldn't get the company in the States to do anything about it.

You might try to create a sort of viral wave of people saying, 'Hey, company in California, we're really disgusted by what you did and we're exposing you. This is the name of the company, and this is the name of the chief executive officer of the company and here is there person we think who posted this information.' Try to embarrass them into taking it down.

Do you run into any legal minefields yourself doing something like that?

You might, if you weren't careful about it. But simply stating the facts as you perceive them is rarely going to get you into any trouble. The evidence is right there, it's right there on the internet.

Any other comments on what a person can do in this kind of situation?

Not directly on that point. I think governments need to get more engaged in this and they need to put more formal co-operation into place so that people have some recourse.

For instance, you shouldn't have to go through the whole expensive Canadian court process, which is beyond the resources of most middle-class Canadians these days.

I think we're evolving in that direction but there's not enough inexpensive direct access to ways to solve these problems.

This interview has been edited and condensed.