August 23, 2010

Sued for Blogging?

Ok.  Whose idea was it to give the lawyers Internet access?

You know you can't shout "fire" in a theater or "bomb" on an airplane.  But did you think that candidly reviewing the poor customer service at your local dry cleaner would make you a target of a defamation lawsuit? How about just commenting about it on someone else's site?  It seems like voicing your opinion on a product, person or idea would be protected speech regardless of where you do it.  But recent court rulings are changing precedent on the speech that the First Amendment covers. And when that Internet speech damages a person's or an entity's reputation, your next blog follower could be a lawyer.

"Most people have no idea of the liability they face when they publish something online," said Eric Goldman, who teaches Internet law at Santa Clara University. "A whole new generation can publish now, but they don't understand the legal dangers they could face. People are shocked to learn they can be sued for posting something that says, 'My dentist stinks.' "
And it's not just bloggers that need to be mindful.  Commenters can influence public perception too and can face prosecution for publishing their opinions. Commenting anonymously won't save you either.
Under federal law, websites generally are not liable for comments posted by outsiders. They can, however, be forced to reveal the poster's identity if the post includes false information presented as fact.
"A lot of people don't know how easy it is to track them down" once a lawsuit is filed, said Sara J. Rose, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in Pittsburgh. 
The article finishes with this sobering piece of advice,
"The first thing people need to realize, they can be held accountable for what they say online," Baron said. "Before you speak ill of anyone online, you should think hard before pressing the 'send' button."
My first reaction is to recoil at the intrusion of the courts on Internet speech.  And then I remember, this is America.  We'll sue for anything here. However I'm not completely beyond seeing the other side of the coin.  Internet bullying and smear campaigns are ramping up as mean kids and malicious competitors move their tactics into the digital arena.  Lies often do run faster than the truth can catch up to them. 

But even still, I value honest opinions.  And I especially want to know when a product fails.  So far word of mouth is the best messenger for reigning in the over-reaching claims that many most advertisers present.  If honest opinion is hemmed in from all directions, how will the truth catch up to the advertisers' lies? 

Bloggers, will you be changing your tone in light of this?

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