Researching internet law in an online business context – My summer legal internship at Yahoo! Canada

Researching internet law in an online business context – My summer legal internship at Yahoo! Canada

Tiffany Wong is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Overlooking the Harbourfront in downtown Toronto, I had the chance to work closely in May 2009 with in-house legal counsel at Yahoo! Canada - one of the largest internet companies with a global reach in distributing websites and online services.

Yahoo! Canada keeps the dot-com fantasy alive as in-house lawyers and other staff members are permitted to wear jeans on a Monday (or everyday for that matter). Free food, social events, an open concept kitchen and a well-used foosball table were readily available to keep the work environment casual, efficient, young, modern and just fun - especially to a large office of tech savvy Generation Y individuals, such as yours-truly, who prove that mixing a relaxed atmosphere with serious legal research is entirely possible.

On that note, I had the opportunity to research the leading edge of internet law with my cup of tea, fresh fruit and some readily available candy from one of the boardrooms. Researching legal case law and legislation on topics of defamation, privacy, human rights and language rights for a major international media company was a large task requiring sustenance. With the wide global reach of internet companies and its services, cloudy areas in the law remain unresolved, including defamation, issues with user-generated content, cross-border business compliance for a product and aggregated content from outside sources that appear online globally from an American company.

Especially interesting, for me, was a chance to apply my prior journalism background to collect, interpret and create a computer presentation of the latest precedents pertaining to internet-related issues.  I used these skills, and those from law school, to translate these findings for the editorial and legal team who risk facing these issues in their daily business activities:

First, I taught the editorial team (a group of creative, not legal types) how to recognize legal issues when writing headlines and publishing blogs or aggregated content: Who is targeted?  Whose jurisdiction is relevant when the website server, internet user and complainant reside in different countries? What is considered online "publication"? Is hyperlinking considered publication? What are particular risks for bloggers who are being sued now more than ever?

Next, I discovered for the legal team a comparative perspective on the newest developments in internet law. There are some rather harsh precedents being set in the UK, US and Australia that have serious implications for internet companies as jurisdictions become muddier, liability for posting a user's alleged defamatory hate speech may have human rights considerations, infinite publication can occur with online websites or blogs and so forth.

Unfortunately, Canada still lags behind in trying to establish precedents in this nebulous area of law. While a number of internet cases have arrived in Canadian courts, they were more likely to follow decisions in the UK and Australia, rather than American decisions that tend to deviate from Commonwealth jurisdictions. There still remains room for Canada to develop its own body of internet laws and regulation. And this void made it challenging to find out precisely where an internet company is susceptible to legal risks.

So, I built a chart starting with the basics. I compared and contrasted how defamation cases are dealt with in the state of California as opposed to the province of Ontario. This also included looking at the California Civil Code and the wealth of freedom of speech and freedom of press protections that American courts offer, including the right to defame public individuals - a right that does not exist in Canada because of a very low threshold for defamation which is a standard applied equally to public and private individuals.

Perhaps the toughest lesson was researching and authoring a legal memo to answer a real, applicable legal question. The exercise was a practical lesson in how to write a legal memo for in-house corporate counsels who juggle objectives for both legal and business development departments.

I also learned about the challenges with drafting a legal disclaimer for online content. It was challenging, because sometimes a single line of text needs to cover a large number of legal issues that could materialize offline from advice provided online. Again, the online aspect was a complication.

This was a practical legal experience that allowed me to research an area of law that is both fascinating and controversial. Delving into online and offline materials in order to find cutting-edge legal developments were good exercises in resourcefulness. I especially enjoyed having the opportunity to communicate and teach legal ideas to non-legal departments.

Overall, I have to admit that internet law needs to catch-up to today's exponential growth of online technology and its multitude of uses - which is one of many discussions with an in-house corporate counsel that sticks out in my mind. It also didn't hurt to have lunches by the waterfront while pondering these tough legal questions!