Twitter has suffered a legal setback in Canada, in a case that demonstrates the complicated nature of online defamation, since the alleged harm occurs in multiple countries ruled by different laws.
In the spring of 2019, British Columbia (BC), Canada-based billionaire Frank Giustra, a member of the board of the Clinton Foundation, decided to sue Twitter for defamation, because a number of Twitter users in 2015 and 2016 linked him in their posts to the so-called “Pizzagate” controversy.
However, last July, Twitter tried to have the case dismissed or stayed, disputing Canadian courts’ jurisdiction in the matter, and saying that Giustra should have filed in the US – at the same time disputing that the billionaire’s reputation was substantially harmed in British Columbia, and that if he had been defamed, the consequences were more likely harmful in the US.
But the BC Supreme Court has now granted Giustra the right to proceed with the lawsuit in Canada.
The Canadian press cites the judge who made the decision, Elliott Myers, as stating that one “significant” factor why Twitter would want the case heard in the US are protections from legal action “due to freedom of speech provisions in the First Amendment.”
And, it remains to be seen during the trial if Canada extends similar protections to tech companies.
But another, perhaps more significant factor for Twitter wanting the trial to take place in the US, is the US Communications Decency Act and its Section 230 that protects providers of internet services like Twitter from liability for user generated content.
The decision to declare the BC Supreme Court as having jurisdiction in the case doesn’t prejudice its outcome, but says it will be up to Twitter to refute the claim that substantial damage to Giustra’s reputation happened precisely in this Canadian province, rather than in the US.
Nevertheless, Twitter seems determined to stick to its Section 230 gun.
“I hope this lawsuit will help raise public awareness of the real harm to society if social media platforms are not held responsible for the content posted and published on their sites,” Giustra said in his reaction to the ruling – adding that “recent events have demonstrated that hate speech can incite violence with deadly consequences.”
What these “recent events” also showed that although legally protected for third party content, sites and apps can still be “punished” by other tech companies who decide to withdraw their services.