from the not-this-again dept
Canada, despite being our friendly neighbor to the north, has been known to have some not great laws regarding speech. Over the years, we’ve covered a few too many distressing lawsuits that attack speech, including by going after intermediaries rather than the speakers themselves. While sometimes (but not always), Canadian courts eventually get to the right decision, it’s often many years later, and after a whole lot of censorial nonsense.
It’s happening yet again. A Canadian businessman, Frank Giustra, is mad at Twitter. He’s really mad at some idiots on Twitter who claimed he was somehow tied into Pizzagate because he’s done some philanthropic work with the Clinton Foundation, but it’s turned into a lawsuit against Twitter itself — because silly people continually want to go after the intermediary, rather than the speaker. Obviously, in the US, any such case would be dead in the water, because common sense, the 1st Amendment, and Section 230 would all protect Twitter. Unfortunately, Canadian courts have none of those three to rely on. So, back in 2019, Giustra sued Twitter in Canada, and not the silly people who may have actually defamed him. Because why go after the actual speakers, when you can go after the tools they use?
Twitter had argued that Canada has no jurisdiction over the case, and it should be filed in California (where it would be tossed out immediately). Unfortunately, earlier this year, a court sided with Giustra over Twitter and now the appeals court has now ruled that Giustra’s lawsuit against Twitter can move forward, upholding the original decision. The full ruling is difficult to read without repeatedly wanting to scream about how dumb it is, but that’s what happens when you have no real intermediary liability protections, and people want to go after websites instead of actual speakers.
What happened in this case was that a bunch of stupid, ignorant people said ridiculously stupid stuff about Giustra online as part of the Pizzagate nonsense, a precursor to today’s metastasized Q-anon conspiracy theory. Giustra was (understandably!) upset about this and alerted Twitter about how people were spewing nonsense about him. Twitter then actually took down the vast majority of the tweets in question, and made most of the rest unviewable in Canada. But then Giustra, who lives in both California and Canada decided to engage in some libel tourism, seeking out the friendliest jurisdiction to go after Twitter: and that’s Canada. As the ruling itself notes:
In this case, Twitter submits, a careful examination demonstrates that the presumptive factor here does not point to any real relationship between the subject matter of the litigation and British Columbia as the forum. Whatever connection there may be between British Columbia and the subject matter of the complaint, Twitter asserts, it is anything but substantial.
In this regard, it points out that Mr. Giustra has a residence not only in West Vancouver, BC, but also one in Beverly Hills, California, and the tweets of which he complains were overwhelmingly posted by Americans about United States topics, particularly in reference to the 2016 US election and the connections between Mr. Giustra and the Clintons. Twitter says that Mr. Giustra’s pleadings did not single out British Columbia as a place of harm, and he filed no evidence that located any particular harm in British Columbia. In Twitter’s submission, the Sikhs for Justice case establishes that a plaintiff is obliged to lead evidence of harm to reputation in his chosen forum if he wishes to meet the case of a defendant who is seeking to rebut the presumption, and the judge erred in distinguishing that case as he did.
Twitter further asserts that, unlike the defendants in Haaretz (where jurisdiction was found not to have been rebutted), it did not choose to create content about the plaintiff. Twitter merely provided the platform and cannot reasonably be expected to be aware of the reputation and location of any given person mentioned on its platform. Moreover, contrary to the judge’s finding, Twitter maintains, the correspondence directed to Twitter on his behalf did not alert Twitter to concern about reputational harm in BC.
Giustra’s response to this seems incredibly silly. He argues that because Twitter made the content available in Canada, that’s enough to say it proactively was subjecting itself to Canadian libel laws. That’s a completely nonsensical argument on a (mostly) borderless internet:
As to Twitter’s submission that it could not reasonably have been expected to be aware of the reputation or location of any particular person mentioned in tweets because it did not create the content, Mr. Giustra points out that Twitter chose to make the content of its platform available worldwide—including Canada—and must be taken to have understood that defamation law may expose it to jeopardy in jurisdictions other than California. Moreover, Twitter continued to publish defamatory tweets after Mr. Giustra and his lawyers brought them to its attention. From that point on, Twitter had actual knowledge of Mr. Giustra’s connection to British Columbia and Canada.
The court, playing to the home crowd, accepts Giustra’s argument.
Here, Twitter submits, although the correspondence brought the existence of allegedly defamatory tweets to its attention, nothing in the communications suggested a connection with British Columbia. Consequently, in Twitter’s submission, it would not have known of Mr. Giustra’s connection to British Columbia, and would have no reason to expect to be sued in that jurisdiction.
In my view, there is no merit to this proposition. The correspondence in question comprised two letters from Mr. Giustra’s Toronto solicitors concerning “abusive Twitter posts”, and one letter with attachments directly from Mr. Giustra on the letterhead of Fiore Financial Corporation in Vancouver.
So, apparently the letterhead is key to putting you on notice that you might be dragged into a Canadian court.
Twitter further argued that California is clearly the more appropriate forum, but again, the Canadian court says Canada wins, basically just saying that the lower court did enough under the law to say that Canada was the right jurisdiction.
Then there’s the important jurisdiction shopping point that Twitter raised. It highlighted to the court that such a case would clearly fail in the US, and thus it was only being brought in Canada to avoid that fate. The court here basically said that Twitter’s free speech protections in the US… are even more of a reason that Canada is the proper venue. That’s… eye-opening, but certainly fits with earlier rulings in which Canada has demanded US companies block content globally, with no concern to free speech considerations as applied to other countries.
A question arises as to whether the circumstance of Twitter’s immunity under US law is properly analysed as a question of applicable law, or of juridical advantage. The judge approached it primarily as a question of juridical advantage, and the parties argued it on that basis. But the judge also dealt with the effect of Twitter’s immunity in California as relevant to the factor of applicable law.
The court then says that because Canada has a much weaker and different intermediary liability protection law, it’s as if Canada has its own Section 230.
As Twitter was at pains to point out, should it be obliged to proceed to trial in British Columbia, it will raise the defence that, in law, it cannot properly be considered a publisher of tweets read in British Columbia (or anywhere else) that it did not author or create, and accordingly will need to bring a number of witnesses to British Columbia to assist it in that regard.
This is the same defence that is afforded to it in California by the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The difference is that in California, Twitter will be in a position to have Mr. Giustra’s claim summarily dismissed on the basis of that defence, while in British Columbia, it will have only the opportunity to persuade a court that the defence is available to it on the merits. Consequently, as a substantive matter, the defence is notionally available in both jurisdictions. Procedurally, however, it is a defence that is arguable in British Columbia, but is bound to succeed in California. In this sense, it can be properly considered under the factor of juridical advantage.
As I understand Twitter’s argument, it does not really matter under which circumstance the matter of Twitter’s immunity is analysed. Either way, the effect of US law should be given little weight in the forum non conveniens comparative analysis and the judge’s approach offended the underlying principle of comity. I agree with Twitter to this extent: whether the matter of its immunity under US law should be considered as a circumstance of applicable law or juridical advantage need not be resolved on this appeal. It is a relevant circumstance, and one that must be considered in the context of comity.
Except, the fact that under 230 such cases are “summarily dismissed” is the key point of Section 230, procedurally ending silly mis-targeted cases before they get ridiculously expensive for the defendant. So, the Canadian’s court’s dismissal of this point as if it’s only slightly different ignores the entire rationale for Section 230.
The court then flat out admits that under US law, courts would never enforce a ruling in Canada, but basically shrugs, and says that’s no reason not to try:
While courts in the United States are prohibited from respecting and enforcing any order made against Twitter in Canada, that is not so of Canadian courts in relation to any order pronounced in the United States. As the Equustek Solutions Inc v Google Inc litigation demonstrated, the courts in the United States are legislatively prohibited from respecting the different constitutional and legal approach in Canada, notwithstanding our shared values.
But that does not make proceeding in British Columbia a pointless exercise, for Mr. Giustra would at least have the opportunity to obtain a judgment vindicating his reputation (see Banro at para 45)—an opportunity denied from the outset in California.
The advantage-disadvantage balance that Twitter relies on is accordingly unequal between the jurisdictions and tilts in favour of British Columbia. In BC, Mr. Giustra would have the opportunity to establish his claim and vindicate his reputation; in California he would not. But Twitter would be in a position to raise the defence of lack of publication in either jurisdiction. In British Columbia, it would be a matter of argument; in California, its success would be a foregone conclusion.
And thus, this silly case moves forward. It’s possible that Twitter will still win in the end, but once again this ruling highlights just how important Section 230 is. It gets rid of these mistargeted, silly lawsuits upfront. Giustra remains free to sue the actual people who he claims defamed him. He has chosen not to do so, and instead focused on Twitter. That, alone, is silly, and it makes a mockery of common sense for Canadian courts to allow it to move forward.