Monday, November 14, 2005

The Canadian Blogosphere Needs to be SLAPPed

No, I'm not talking about the parliamentary chicken game being played out right now. (I've decided to ignore stories about confidence votes until they actually happen; no sense trying to stoke partisan fire until we actually get the kickoff.) I'm talking about what can be done for a blogger who's being sued for libel:

Louisette Lanteigne of Waterloo, Ont., said she grew sick of what she saw during construction in her new subdivision and what appeared to be questionable building practices and labour-code violations.

She launched her website in April to document her complaints and as a means for the province's Environment and Labour ministries to view the evidence she collected. She made about a dozen postings with photos and stories of sightings around her area.

Her efforts led to letters and kudos from various government officials for reporting alleged violations.

Environment Ministry spokesman John Steele said work by people like Lanteigne is of great value because there aren't enough ministry workers available to spot every infraction.

"Obviously we can't have staff everywhere all the time, so we depend on the public out there as surrogate eyes and ears for the ministry," Steele said. "They're an important part of the ministry's work."

As an aside: this illustrates one of the true strengths of the blogosphere. For a local problem to be handled, it needs to be publicized and documented. In this era of digital photography, free Web hosting and super-cheap Internet access, bloggers can do this -- without the worry of having to go through a centralized editorial process.

Had Ms. Lanteigne tried to make this a printed or media news story, she would have needed to convince a reporter, who in turn would have to convince an editor, who would have to decide on its newsworthiness and when to run it. Since a website is a continuous presence, she can post her evidence there and prompt officials to see it via a web address. The site, simply called Infringements, is here, but it's had so many hits that it's crashed as of this time of writing.

Of course, since anybody in the world can look at her website, it stands to reason that there will be some folks who look at it and don't like what they see. Especially the people who caused the problems she complained about in the first place:

On Sept. 16, Lanteigne received news that she was being sued for libel by developer Activa Holdings Inc., one of the largest developers in the region.

The statement of claim said "the malicious, high-handed and arrogant conduct of the Defendant warrants an award of punitive or exemplary damages to ensure that the Defendant is appropriately punished for her conduct and deterred from such conduct in the future."

The company sought $2 million and an order to have the allegedly libellous material taken offline.

While Lanteigne may not have $2 million to pay Activa, she does have a lot to lose and could be forced into bankruptcy.

Lanteigne said she stands by everything she wrote and isn't backing down.

"I learned the only way they could get me to remove the site was with an injunction, and an injunction would mean they would have to bring this information in front of a judge," Lanteigne said.

"I thought, 'That's excellent,' because I need a judge to see what's going on here."

Some U.S. states have seen so many libel or defamation lawsuits that legislation has been created to help people take on cases against more powerful opponents.

The legislation is typically called anti-SLAPP, an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

The laws reduce the risk of fighting lawsuits because if the plaintiff loses, they are responsible for all the legal fees. In Lanteigne's case, she will have to pay her lawyer regardless of the outcome.

Ms. Lanteigne is obviously confident enough in her documentation and evidence that she believes bankruptcy is a worthwhile risk. But other bloggers -- particularly those blogging about local issues -- may not feel the same way; they don't have the resources to take the risk. An anti-SLAPP fund would go a long way towards keeping large organizations accountable to the public (via the blogosphere) for their misbehaviour.

As far as I know, anti-SLAPP legislation doesn't exist in Canada, at either the national or provincial levels. It should -- as part of any good whistleblower support legislation. When it comes to empowering Joe and Jill Blogger, public help is a good thing.