5 Facebook rulings that affect what Canadians can do online

A number of Canadian legal cases involving Facebook, including alleged threats, profile status information and access to personal content, may have an affect on social network behaviour.
While high-profile cases like those have are still rare in Canada, there have still been a number of legal issues involving Facebook that may affect social network behaviour. (Timur Emek/dapd/Associated Press)

The cases of a teenage Nova Scotia girl who was allegedly defamed on a bogus Facebook page and of two University of Calgary students who were punished for criticizing a professor on the social networking site are just two examples of the legal wranglings involving social media.

The Supreme Court of Canada heard an appeal by the Nova Scotia girl on Thursday. The young woman and her family are appealing a lower court's ruling that said she couldn't proceed with her defamation case without revealing her name.

In the case of the University of Calgary students, the Alberta Court of Appeal sided with the students.

While high-profile cases like those are rare in Canada, there are still a number of outstanding legal issues involving Facebook — apart from the defamation/criticism described above — that could have an impact on social network behaviour.


In Oct. 2010, a Quebec man learned how costly it is to spam members of the social-networking site. He was ordered to pay Facebook $873 million US for the over 4.3 million messages he sent to Facebook users in 2008.

Employment status

Also that year, an Ottawa colouring artist who worked at a hair salon discovered that setting his Facebook status can have legal ramifications. The Canada Revenue Agency had launched a case against the man over his CPP and EI contributions, which hinged on whether he was an employee or a self-employed independent contractor.

Court heard that he had described himself as "self-employed" on his Facebook page but he claimed he had lied about his status to protect his privacy. He later admitted that everything else about himself on his profile page, including his age, likes, preferences, hometown, education and activities, were all factual.

The judge ruled in favour of the tax agency, in part, because "it is not that he lied on Facebook, it is that I do not believe he was telling the truth when he said he was lying on Facebook."

Alleged threats

People are also increasingly coming under scrutiny for the threatening content they post on their Facebook page.

In July 2010, a Toronto man was cleared of threatening death for a posting he put on a Facebook page. Previously, he had been cautioned by police after he posted images of swastikas, a single reference to the Virginia Tech massacre and anti-Semitic comments on his Facebook page, court heard. 

Although he claimed he would not continue, he subsequently posted a comment that included the passage "if you are a priest, judge, cop, lawyer, commoner, or teacher … I'm bringing death with me this time around."

But the judge said he was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that his message intended a threat and cleared him.

Then, in Dec 2010, an Ontario court sided with officials at Western University, who had expelled a law student for threatening behaviour, including in particular his Facebook postings.

Court heard the student had referred to himself as "Dr. Frank N. Stein" on his Facebook page and had included references to "Dr. is eating babies," "Go on a killing spree," "Dr. is free to observe torture without criminal liability" and "Dr. is learning how to get away with murder in his criminal law class."

The court rejected the student's claims that he was exercising his right to freedom of speech and that the university had no jurisdiction over his off-campus activities.

Are you really injured?

People in legal battles, quite often those who have been involved in car accidents, are finding that personal activities they have posted on Facebook may be fair game when it comes to insurance disputes.

In Oct. 2009, an Ontario court denied Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Co. of Canada access to the Facebook account of a woman who had sued them to recover compensation for injuries she suffered in a car crash.

The insurance company wanted her password and user name to get into the private area of her account, which they believed might contain evidence that showed she was not as injured as she claimed.

But the judge found that Royal & Sun failed to offer any evidence that the Facebook account contained any relevant information.

However, in an earlier case, an Ontario court ruled differently . A man had claimed that a car accident, caused by a driver's negligence, had brought limitations to his lifestyle and that as a result of the crash he could no longer engage in certain sporting activities.

The driver wanted access to the man's Facebook account to see if there was any evidence that might counter those claims.

In that case, the Ontario court ruled that there were relevant materials on Facebook and that "a court can infer, from the nature of the Facebook service, the likely existence of relevant documents on a limited-access Facebook profile."

In a similar case in Dec. 2009, a New Brunswick judge ordered a Miramichi woman to reveal how often she uses Facebook to a man she was suing following a car crash five years earlier. The woman had refused to disclose her Facebook activity, saying it would violate her privacy.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.