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Online Community Baits Officer Bubbles to Sue Them Next

October 21, 2010
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Officer Bubbles is back.

Perhaps the shortest video in Real News Network history, ‘Officer Bubbles‘ was released as supplemental footage to a longer video about the mass arrest and detention carried out in the Toronto neighborhood of Parkdale during the weekend of the G20 Summit in June. The shorter video rose to YouTube stardom, with hundreds of thousands of views, thousands more embeds on a variety of websites, and primetime news coverage from Fox News to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Within one week it was over and people’s attention went elsewhere.

Now, almost four months later, Const. Adam Josephs has has brought the spotlight back on his anti-social behavior of that day. He has filed a lawsuit in the Ontario Superiour Court seeking $1.25 million in compensation for defamation. The first defendant named is Google Inc., the owner and operator of YouTube. The other 25 defendants are identified only by their YouTube usernames.

Can We Criticize Cops?

The central culprit is YouTube user ‘ThePMOCanada’ who produced a series of eight satirical cartoons featuring a likeness of Josephs as “Officer Bubbles” in a variety of situations that mirror real, documented police actions during the G20. 

For example, the episode ‘Weapons Display’ parodies the infamous weapons cache fiasco that took place June 29th, when Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair knowingly lied to the public about weapons seized during the G20 in a failed media stunt to paint protesters as part of, what he called, a vast “criminal conspiracy” to attack Torontonians. Other episodes of the cartoon parodied the arresting of street medics, attacking of journalists, use of mass detention, and other abuses by police that weekend. Josephs’ lawsuit claims that these videos are “devastatingly defamatory”.

It can hardly be argued that a police officer – an individual in our society to whom we delegate an incredible amount of power – could be considered shielded from public scrutiny. Much less so during events as important to the public interest as the G20 meetings and the demonstrations opposing those meetings. 

As for the cartoons, satire is one of the oldest and most cherished forms of scrutiny with a long history of exposing and humiliating those who abuse their authority.

It may be unfair that Josephs became the poster boy for police abuses that he may not have participated in – and that he certainly didn’t order – but it’s not illegal. No more illegal than a Saturday Night Live skit blaming a single politician for the breakdown of a complex economic system.

What’s This All About?

A number of the 25 defendants have contacted The Real News to describe an e-mail they received from Google, Inc. informing them that their account information was being sought by Const. Adam Josephs by way of a lawsuit. They were told that if they didn’t respond within seven days Google would assume they had no objections and would proceed to hand over the requested information to Josephs without their consent. 

In the lawsuit, Josephs and his lawyers lay out three objectives.

1) That Josephs receive $1.25 million in compensation for the damage done to his reputation.

2) That the cartoons be removed.

3) That Google reveal the identities of the cartoonist and 24 commentators.

Number one appears to stem from a confusion of the saying ‘reputations are earned’, which Josephs appears to interpret as ‘reputations earn’. The YouTube comments relate to something Josephs actually did, whether or not he agrees with them, he did earn that reputation. I can find no legal precedent that would cause Josephs to expect monetary compensation for being criticized.

The cartoons are a different story, because they depict things that Josephs didn’t do. This could be defamation if the damaging false information was spread in a way that made it appear as fact. In this case however, the lies about Josephs were of a purposefully absurd nature – the cartoons depict, in two examples, Josephs arresting Santa Claus and Barack Obama for being inside the imaginary 5-metre security perimeter. Furthermore, they were spread by way of cartoon, and a clearly satirical cartoon at that.

Hurt feelings, while unfortunate, are not themselves grounds for legal culpability.

Number two, Josephs’ attempt to use the courts to remove the cartoons, shows a tragic misunderstanding of internet physics. Even a cursory look at e-history shows that attempts at legal censorship, even when successful at silencing their initial target, inevitably end up drawing more attention than would be drawn if it was left unchallenged. The phenomenon has been observed frequently enough to earn it’s own name, the ‘ Streisand Effect‘. Named for singer/actress Barbara Streisand after she drew added attention to her California mansion by filing a privacy law challenge against an aerial photo posted online by geographers studying coastal erosion. 

Josephs was immediately successful, as the original cartoons were taken down. I wasn’t able to determine whether they were taken down by Google or by the producer themselves. But, as internet pioneer and civil libertarian John Gilmore told Time magazine back in 1993, “[the] Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” The cartoons have since been reposted under other usernames and they are spreading faster and more widely than previously imagined prior to the lawsuit.

Meanwhile the original ‘Officer Bubbles’ video published by The Real News is, at the time of writing, up to 680,000 views. Roughly triple what it was before the lawsuit. On top of that, YouTube’s view counter doesn’t take into account views of videos embedded on other sites. It is also quickly approaching 8,000 comments as well. My personal favorite comes from user ‘ezzlys’, it reads: “[comment removed by Officer Bubbles]”

User ‘ytgv3fc7’ who contacted me after being named in the lawsuit, thinks that Josephs must have known the lawsuit would increase awareness and criticism of his actions, not put an end to them. The user, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that “another million people are aware of this guy, writing nasty comments all over the place, except this time the comments end with ‘now sue me.”

Less likely still is that Josephs will get monetary restitution. So why then, asks ‘ytgv3fc7’, would he go ahead with the suit?

“Call me paranoid, but the other option is that it’s about finding out who the dissenters are.” For this reason, ‘ytgv3fc7’ chose not to reveal their name. “Considering the behavior we’ve seen already from the police, is it really that farfetched? I don’t think so.”

Here are a list of some of the main offenders that Josephs has targeted with his lawsuit, and what they wrote to land themselves in the suit. 

– John Doe No. 13 aka TheCanuckSailor: “It’s a shame when the police are becoming uniformed bullies. It’s bad when the local people tell them to leave their community.”

– John Doe No. 2 aka sahand193: “fuck officer bubbles”

– The aforementioned ‘ytgv3fc7’, also known as John Doe 25, wrote: “I think an awesome hallowe’en costume would be a roid-raging A-Josephs costume. Any takers on that plan?”

In all fairness to ‘ytgv3fc7’, I find it unlikely that anyone would go to this length to collect information on these 24 individuals. Comments like these toward ‘Officer Bubbles’ can literally be found by the thousands on YouTube, so targeting these 24 in particular is not a very effective intelligence campaign. Though, if this case sets a precedent that police can sue for the identities of critics, that could quickly become an effective avenue to gathering information on dissenters. I should also add that Toronto Police Union President Mike McCormack has announced his support for Josephs. McCormack says it has to do with the death threats that Josephs has received. If that’s the case, then why isn’t Josephs going after those that are behind the death threats?

John Doe No. 7, aka ‘Pussymcfats’, is being sued for writing that “officer bubbles probably looks in the mirror a lot”. His real name is Todd Mara and he told the Real News that he’s not afraid to reveal his identity because he’s innocent. “I was merely pointing out that the officer in the video was acting in an ego-maniacal way,” Mara explains, “and anybody who watched it would agree.”

Mara believes that the lawsuit is about nothing more than one insecure officer. “Officer Bubbles seems himself a certain way, I challenged that when I said what I said. But, if we’re paying their salaries and they’re supposed to be protecting the common good, then they should be open to all criticism.”

Others have suggested the lawsuit is an attempt to dissuade all people from criticizing the police. If that was the plan, then it is yet another failure, as Josephs has come under even further criticism than previously imagined since filing the lawsuit. 

Attack on Anonymity

Lawyer and Toronto Sun columnist Alan Shanoff told The Real News that, “if you defame someone you should not be allowed to hide under a cloak of anonymity,” but he added that anonymous spaces are “central to freedom of expression in that if we force people to disclose their identities then they may be afraid to express their real views.” That’s why it’s so distressing that some of the Canadian media has used this floundering lawsuit as a launch pad to question the value of online anonymity as a whole.

Both the Ottawa Citizen and Montreal Gazette ran an article quoting Sidneyeve Matrix, professor of social and digital media at Queen’s University, saying of online commenting that “we definitely need to make sure that it’s going to be the place where we find a lot of serious, studied information,”

Really?

I hope Matrix isn’t including me in the ‘we’ she’s referring to, because I don’t hold comments sections to such standards. That’s not to say that studied, serious information can’t be passed by anonymous users on YouTube, in fact it often is. But, is Matrix suggesting that a site with a 500 character limit and a high demand for cute kitten videos should be moderated for “serious, studied information”? This appears to be a contrived problem by academics looking to find relevance for their classroom theories, without first considering the consequences of removing anonymous spaces from the internet.

That said. Online anonymity does present some real dilemmas. 

The Real News, for example, has deleted dozens of comments from the ‘Officer Bubbles’ video. Most were either virulently racist comments (often advocating violence) against Josephs, or misogynistic comments (often advocating violence) against Courtney Winkels – the 20-year-old social worker seen blowing bubbles in the video. It’s not an easy decision, because we believe there’s something to be said for people being aware of the various forms of hate that continue to shape life in our world. But, we have made the decision to deny such comments a venue on our particular channel. 

Certainly, oppressive comments would be less likely if people had to identify themselves. But, requiring people to identify themselves would also dissuade criticism of those with the most influence in our society – like police. That must be avoided at all costs.

A Total Victory?

I can’t speculate on whether or not the intent of the lawsuit was to identify dissidents, to dissuade dissent more broadly, or just one individual seeking restitution. Regardless of intent, the lawsuit had the potential to chill dissent.

The lawsuit can’t be taken out of the current context.

Recent history shows that Canadian authorities limits on free speech are much more accommodating to known racists than to known dissidents. Police and courts have worked together to imprison and silence G20 defendant Alex Hundert after he publicly criticized them as an invited speaker on a university panel. Meanwhile, known white supremacist Paul Fromm is quoted all over national media labeling Tamil migrants as terrorists; with no interference from police and courts.

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission, the permanent tribunal of the Organization of American States, has called on the Canadian government to defend itself at a public hearing on October 25th on the ‘Right of Freedom of Expression, Assembly, Association, and Movement in Canada’.

If Josephs’ lawsuit enjoys even the slightest appearance of having been successful, it will be added to the list of recent police and court activities that I interpret as attacks on freedom of expression. 

On a good note though, as someone who firmly believes that police should be subject to surveillance and criticism, both anonymous and identified, both satirical and documentary, I am pleased to report that Josephs and the police union appear to be failing miserably.

Stephanie Sprenger contributed to this article.

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