Thursday, 26 April 2012

13 Million Reasons (online defamation II)


13 Million Reasons to keep it to yourself

Accountable? Of course!

An internet defamation case has ended in a couple from Texas, United States being awarded a whopping 13 million dollars. Anonymity on the internet is over. Loose and fast talk, even if anonymous, can be punished.

Although an argument can be made that freedom of expression in the United States is more jealously guarded than any other country on the planet, more and more online defamation matters are resulting in positive awards for those making the complaints and alleging defamation based on comments made online.

Ordinarily, the severity of the comments online will determine the monetary value a court awards a successful plaintiff. These amounts appear to vary wildly.  A cricket player being accused as a cheat was awarded ninety thousand pounds in the United Kingdom, a blogger from the United States was smacked to the tune of two and a half million dollars for accusing a company of being involved in illegal activities. More recently, a reported 13 million dollar penalty for child molestation allegations. Online defamation can be costly it seems.

Itll never happen to me

The controversial secrecy bill notwithstanding, freedom of expression is a South African constitutional right which most in South Africa revere. Political parties, journalists, NGOs and just about every bored DJ have dipped into the debate surrounding freedom of expression recently. 

How does this translate to online defamation?  Well, as the law currently stands, not too good for any person shouting their mouth off on Twitter or Facebook.

It'll probably won't happen to me is not the best thought process after a glass of red wine and an axe to grind. Think long and hard before venting online, or having a full blown argument with someone on a medium which can potentially be accessed by millions.

In the ever increasing social media and quick fix based society we live in, the murdered cliché of the world getting smaller is probably apt. Particularly if you consider the potential for cross border online defamation disputes.

Considered legal argument suggests that the time and place the defamation occurs is when the material is seen or read or observed, and not where it is published. If this is correct, then if both people happen to find themselves in the same country then perhaps the complexity of online defamation eases slightly.

However, given vast increases in internet penetration and the ease of communication with all parts of the globe, cross border disputes will arise. That raises various other questions about enforceability if the two protagonists are in different parts of the globe, but be that as it may, we all have a few more reasons to think twice before exploding or commenting viciously online.

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