Monday, November 15, 2004

Cyberlibel Chill

This story should have a pretty chilling effect on Canada's blogging community:
An Ontario judge has awarded an archeologist $125,000 in damages after a native man used e-mails to smear her as a “grave robber.”

The archeologist's lawyer is calling the ruling a precedent-setting one in the emerging field of Internet libel, a notion that may eventually have a chilling effect on the freewheeling ways computer users send messages.
Earlier this fall, Warren Kinsella caused a minor ruckus when he demanded that a couple of bloggers take down insults about him. He threatened to take these bloggers to court and, since he is a lawyer, it was pretty clear that he could and would.

While Kinsella's actions were justified, it pissed off a lot of bloggers. I can understand. Somebody that I wrote about unfavorably last summer threatened to sue me for libel. Even though I knew what I had written was provably true, I took it down -- an act of self-censorship that still bugs me. But blogging is only fun for me so long as it doesn't involve going to court or costing me money...

I think the average blogger, when threatened with a lawsuit, will take down whatever has been written as soon as they become acquainted with libel laws. If slandering an archeologist as "grave robber" is worth $125,000 (watch out rabble.ca!), then I can only wonder what some of the profane insults I've seen traded on blogs are worth in this eyes of Canada's judges...

Even with all the resources that it has, the mainstream media is sometimes victim to libel chill -- self-censorship over the fear of lawsuits from large corporations or rich individuals. The problem is exacerbated with bloggers, individuals who usually don't have the resources news organization have to defend themselves.

Just because someone writes on the Internet, they shouldn't get a free pass. But frivolous threats of libel as an attempt to silence bloggers are going to be more of a problem now that people have clued in to what kind of impact blogs can have... This is an issue that has been completely left out of the endless discussion of "MSM vs. bloggers".

Post-script

I just used Blogger's spell-check function for the first time... Isn't it ridiculous that it doesn't know the words "blogs," "blogger," or "blogging"?

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