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Anonymity exposed, part deux: Google, ISPs ordered to expose academic dissidents

Canada's York University now has the identities of five or six faculty members who anonymously questioned the academic credentials of a new dean. A Canadian court ordered Google and two ISPs to turn over the information. Does ISP data retention undercut academic freedom?
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor on

Here we go again: A Canadian court has ordered Google and Canada's two largest ISPS to reveal the identity of anonymous emailers, The National Post reports.

This time it's not about who's the skankiest supermodel in NYC, but accusations that president of Canada's York University engaged in academic fraud. That's a more serious matter who's dryhumping who in a late-night club scene. After York president Mamdouh Shoukri announced the hiring of Martin Singer as the dean of the school's new Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies - calling him a "renowned scholar of Chinese history" and "such a strong scholar and administrator" - a message from a Gmail account went out from a group called York Faculty Concerned About the Future of York University.

The message accused Shoukri of "perpetrating an outrageous fraud" and added:

Lying about scholarly credentials is the gravest offence.

The universiity went to court, suing Google for the IP adresses associated with the Gmail account. Google turned over that information, identifying Bell Canada and Rogers Communications as the ISPs. Last month they sued the ISPs for the customer information, a motion the ISPs didn't oppose.

Justice George R. Strathy of Ontario Superior Court released his reasons for granting the orders, saying it was a reasonable balance between protecting freedom of speech and protection from libel.

David Noble, an outspoken professor at York, denounced the moves as "a fishing expedition."

"I think they are trying to create a chill among faculty. They are spending enormous sums, for what? I think they are just desperate to find out who is involved." [The other professors are] afraid of reprisals.

I was cautiouslly supportive of the judge's move in the supermodel case, since (a) there was some argument that there was actual damage, (b) the public interest in the speech was modest and (c) the court appeared to consider the free speech right versus the right to litigate. In this case, though, the public interest is quite substantial: the case involves not just the right to speak, but academic freedoom, fear of retaliation and the quality of a leading academic institution. The university has a much larger bully pulpit than the Concerned Faculty: they can issue press releases, do media interviews, release the CV of the professor. This is a debate properly held in the public square, not the courtroom. The university lawyer, Will McDowell, sais this: "The right of free speech is not unlimited. What was said is quite damaging to the institution." One wonders if he meant the right to speak anonymously is not unlmited. Because the statement on its face seems to say the professors in question had no right to speak in a way that might damage the institution, regardless of whether the criticism has merit.

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