Brazen bloggers risk defamation

If you keep an internet diary, then the chances are you have almost no idea of the legal consequences you face for publishing comments or images online.

If you don’t blog, then you’re likely to face the same danger of falling foul of copyright, defamation or harassment laws because you’ve posted on a social network.

Uncertainty about the legal liabilities of posting material on the internet is so widespread that just 5% of users are clear about their responsibilities as a publisher.

Such is the stark conclusion of DLA Piper, a UK-based legal firm , which interviewed 2,000 adults to find that user-generated-content is wrongly seen as immune to the law.

The survey shows that because ‘UGC’ is on new, non-traditional media, like blogs and forums, there is a perception it is outside legislation drawn up decades ago.

But the perception also exists because the authors of UGC don’t actually want laws to constrain them online: just a quarter of bloggers think they should be held to account like journalists.

The results also found that more internet users were against a voluntary code of conduct for bloggers than the number who called for one to be introduced.

Partly this is because many bloggers take the attitude “publish and be damned” – seemingly unaware that they risk prosecution under a raft of legislation.

Last month, legislation caught up with a blogger in Flintshire, Wales, in a case that should worry even the most brazen of the bloggosphere.

The diarist posted offensive messages about a police officer’s new-born baby, and added a claim that he was mistreated by the police and Crown Prosecution Service

Subsequently, he was prosecuted under the Telecommunications Act, relating to the sending of an electronic message.

“Far from being immune from the law, UGC is in particular danger of falling foul of it,” warned Duncan Calow, a digital media partner at DLA Piper.

“Blogs and online forums may differ from traditional media in their style and purpose, but their content is still publicly consumed and they have the equivalent potential to cause damage and offence and infringe others' rights.”

He said that, based on the survey results, it is clear that many internet users would benefit from, if not welcome, some clearer guidance about posting comment online.

Positively for lawyers like Mr Calow, publishing UGC is a growing phenomenon: in the survey, 54% of respondents had posted comment on a message board, blog or social networking site.

As expected, 18-24 year olds were singled out as the most active users in the survey , with the vast majority (84%) having participated in some form of UGC.

However, only a third of regular internet users have read the legal terms and conditions, disclaimers and guidelines for posting comment on the internet forums they use.

Perhaps most worrying of all the findings is the 77% of internet users with an active blog who said they were uncertain or unaware of the legal liabilities they potentially face.

For all internet users who post comments or material online, DLA Piper has spelt out the biggest legal pitfalls:

Defamation: The UK has tough libel laws and from the earliest Web 1.0 bulletin boards posters have got into difficulty with defamatory comments - as have the online services that carry them.

Offensive Messages: There are a range of laws from the Protection from Harassment Act to specific restrictions in the Telecommunications Act that can be invoked.

Incitement: There have been high profile cases relating to terrorism but any encouragement of others to commit unlawful acts can result in prosecution.

Intellectual property: There is a copy and paste culture online, but undeclared use of other people's material (whether it's an article, photograph, logo or even another blog posting) can cause problems.

Linking: Bloggers need to think about what is on their own site, but also keep an eye on the links they provide to other pages e.g. to offensive or illegal material.

Reporting: The law of contempt and other statutory reporting restrictions carry strict penalties if breached.

Corporate blogging: The legal pitfalls can be even more pronounced in the case of corporate blogs where additional commercial concerns will apply.

 

15th May 2008

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