Being completely ignorant of matters pertaining to law and having never written anything major online, I decided I am the perfect fit for attempting to compile a legal guide for online writers. The mission will be to describe in actual human language what kind of legal obligations practically apply to this newborn community in which everyone has a voice and everyone has an opinion. As free-ranged as the chickens of the web are, they are still supervised to some extent and policed by several baseline laws, while enforcement and actual punishment would be case sensitive and jurisdiction dependent.
We will begin with the fun one - Defamation.
Defamation is “a false and unprivileged statement of fact that is harmful to someone's reputation, and published "with fault," meaning as a result of negligence or malice.” (1)
Slander is a spoken form of defamation. Libel is written defamation. Cyber-Libel is online written defamation. This is a relatively new field in law studies and is being updated to fit the modern development of society in many countries.
We are going to take a look at defamation specifically though the eyes of potential online writers, I was trying to answer this question -
What should I make sure not to write in order to avoid Cyber-Libel charges?
Today, most Cyber-Libel defamation claims result through a web page, comment, bulletin board post, review, rating or blog post.
After doing the legwork and researching Cyber-Libel, it seems as though the main issue here revolves around the word “reputation”. A person claiming to be de-famed has to actually have some form of fame that will be compromised by your statement. Merely being insulted is not enough to claim defamation.
This used to mean that mostly public figures has defamation issues, and those had to prove actual malice - knowledge of falsity or in reckless disregard for the truth.
However, a private person can also claim the defamatory words published by you have lowered his reputation in the eyes of his acquaintances, peers, colleagues, or employers - i.e., lowered his chances for friendships, relationships, employment and so on.
In some countries this doesn’t even have to be proven in a much more elaborate way than showing the words were published, are false, and pertain to the victim. Boom.
Understand this - as an online writer, even from the safety of your flickering screen, the words you choose to publish have the potential to be defamatory, probably in some ways you haven’t even thought so.
If you express a personal opinion or even report on an issue in a biased way, you may be liable for Cyber-Libel charges. No matter what desolate corner of the internet it was on.
Such charges can be anywhere from monetary restitution to actual jail time.
The punishment for a defamatory charge would factor in:
- Location of the specific writing in terms of internet traffic
- Amount of exposure it received
- Length of time it was posted for
- Extent of damage caused to the plaintiff’s reputation
The main defense in Cyber-Libel cases is simply claiming the words written to be true. But truth is harder to prove than you think, and also very expensive.
Saying something stupid in a comment section somewhere will not get you in jail. However, I would not recommend a lengthy blog post about the faulty personal hygiene habits of your local grocery store manager. You might trigger someone you didn’t even consider you were doing any harm to.
In general, just be kind.
Please feel free to leave defamatory Cyber-Libel comments in the section below, I promise not to sue you and to tell you which ones would actually qualify for a lawsuit!