Note: The information provided in this document is of a general nature and does not constitute legal advice. Moreover, it addresses only some issues in defamation law, and only under the law in Ontario, Canada. While the law of defamation in other common law jurisdictions (e.g., other provinces in Canada excluding Quebec, England, Australia, the USA) is based on similar principles, it can vary in important respects. If you have questions about how defamation law applies in a particular situation, you should consult a local lawyer.

As an inexpensive and accessible medium of worldwide communication, the Internet offers individuals unprecedented new opportunities to publish and share information and opinions. Messages posted on websites or in discussion forums have a potentially vast audience, and can be replicated almost endlessly. This means that defamatory statements published on the Internet can have wide repercussions for affected individuals or corporations.

In a June 2004 case, Barrick Gold Corporation v. Lopehandia, 2004 CanLII 12938 (ON C.A.), the Ontario Court of Appeal increased a trial judge's damage award for internet-based defamation from $15,000 to $75,000, with an additional $50,000 punitive damages, on the grounds that Internet defamation has a distinctive capacity "to cause instantaneous, and irreparable, damage to the business reputation of an individual or corporation by reason of its interactive and globally all-pervasive nature", as well as its potential for being taken at face value. The company in this case was able to prove actual harm by showing that its shareholders had seen the defamatory statements. It should also be noted that defendant did not defend himself in the appeal.

At the same time that the online context can exacerbate the harmful effects of defamation, it serves as an important vehicle for free speech. Efforts to protect reputation need to be balanced against the public interest in maintaining the potential of the Internet as a medium of public discourse. The law of defamation needs to protect people from cyber-libel without squelching legitimate free speech. Lawsuits that allege defamation in order to curtail fair criticism - known as "SLAPPs" (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) - should not be permitted, either online or offline.

"This F.A.Q. was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council"