Courts Around The World Dealing With The Fact That There Are Mean People Online

from the but-is-it-illegal? dept

Here are two separate lawsuits, halfway around the world from each other that seem to be touching on quite similar issues: whether or not it's illegal to be a jerk online. The first, described by Eric Goldman, is about a student who has sued a bunch of high school classmates, their parents and Facebook, because those students created a private group on Facebook where they made fun of the girl. Goldman points out all the problems with the lawsuit: suing Facebook makes no sense and will get thrown out pretty quickly. The group was private, and limited to six students, so the total "audience" for any defamation was a grand total of five people -- and, while the comments were mean, they were also pretty obviously not true. Also, suing the parents for "negligence" in supervising their kids isn't likely to get very far. All in all, it seems like the case probably won't last very long.

However, the results on the other side of the planet were a bit different. VivekM points us to the news of a teen in India who started an Orkut group against a certain political party. Many people left anonymous comments as a part of the group, but the party sued the teenager who created the group, claiming he violated a local law against "hurting public sentiment." Rather than realizing the the kid starting the group should have no liability for the statements made by others, the Supreme Court in India has said that he can be charged, noting: "You are a computer student and you know how many people access internet portals. Hence, if someone files a criminal action on the basis of the content, then you will have to face the case. You have to go before the court and explain your conduct."

At some point, people and courts will recognize that there will always be jerks online, and it makes little sense to go around filing lawsuits against anyone in any way connected to those being jerky (even the jerky folks themselves), but until that time, the court systems around the world are going to be quite busy with similar cases.
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Filed Under: india, lawsuits, liability, libel, social networks

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Mar 2009 @ 11:52am

    Freedom of speech and responsibility

    OK, I recognize the irony of posting anonymous in this thread.

    That being said, there are at least a few things that make non-online speech a bit different than online speech.

    Non-online speech normally has a finite lifetime. The spoken word normally has the lifetime of the conversation. In issues like Imus's comments, the spoken word will live as long as someone talks about it. However, I imagine not many people can quote Imus's comments verbatim and in context today.

    The written word requires physical media in order to propagate. If you don't have a copy of the paper, pamphlet, or tract, then at best you get the information second hand.

    In both of the above cases, responsibility goes along with the saying or publishing of sophomoric comments. The statement can be directly traceable. Other people can (and do) respond accordingly towards the people who make these comments.

    Online commentary (such as this) is a bit different. There are no consequences for posting inflammatory rhetoric online. There are no consequences for posting potentially embarrassing material online. I've seen people post supposedly private internet conversations (chats, private messages, web camera pictures) on a public blog with devastating results.

    I've also listened to recorded voices (from voice chat) edited into pretty horrific statements and then posted on blogs. I don't know the legal ramifications of this, but the end result is certainly unpleasant.

    These comments also have a much longer lifespan than comments in more traditional venues. I can pull up information that I posted over 20 years ago with a simple search. I'm sure unpleasant comments about people have similar life spans.

    How do we deal with the potentially damaging online behavior? Curtailing free speech doesn't seem to be a good answer. Just "letting it slide" doesn't seem to be a good answer either.

    Without proper context, damaging speech can negatively impact both online and offline lives. Obtaining that context is difficult to impossible, since in many cases it would require reading an entire thread of conversation. With edited voice recordings, the context has purposefully been destroyed.

    I think a combination of education, web site owner management, and a lessening of anonymous postings might be used to combat the long term issues of irresponsible free speech on long-lived media.

    People need to become educated in that what they say can be traced online and may reflect on their future online and offline lives. Web site managers should work on dealing with obvious trolls with clear site policy and consistent action. Finally, people need to take responsibility for their posting. If a person is going to troll, or act belligerently then that person needs to be accountable.

    I think the end result will be a segmenting of the web portion of the Internet. Certain sites will baulk at creating a responsible forum for free speech. People will learn that those sites consist of little more than school children screaming names at each other. The information from those sites should then be viewed with the appropriate filter. Children acting badly . . . nothing to see here.

    Other sites where there is heated, responsible discourse will exist. Information from those sites will then be treated appropriately. Posters will have to understand that their statements are long-lived, and that they must be responsible for their words.

    People (employers, potential spouses, etc.) will then have some grounds for evaluating the weight of the information they read. The reader will then have the capability (and responsibility) to place the comments in context.

    Lessons of responsible free speech should have been learned in grade school, or at worst middle school. Apparently the lesson being learned is if you can get away with it, do it.

    I would like to see the attitude and the environment changed (preferably without legislation).

    Or in chat parlance . . . that's what the ignore button is for.

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