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Get Defamed, Get Rich

This recent news article from USA Today caught my eye tonight: USATODAY.com - Jury awards $11.3M over defamatory Internet posts

The law professor quoted in the article calls the result "astonishing". It certainly is at first, but I'm curious, and growingly concerned, about the consequences. Have you ever been defamed on the Internet? In my experience, defamation is a regular event, particularly on Usenet and to a lesser extent on the web message boards this case concerns. While this immediately raises concerns about the effect on the right to publicly criticise and the right to publicly voice opinions, they're secondary issues given the apparent lack of their treatment in the case. Instead, in so far as the article suggests, such issues were not even raised because the defendant could not afford to present a case. It appears (hopefully I'm reading too much into this) that the jury empathised with the only story that was presented, thereby awarding over $US10M.

Is this not a scary prospect? That being sued for an amount beyond personal comprehension for publicly criticising another person online now has a precedent? Certainly, coordinated efforts to unfairly ruin a person's reputation are reprehensible, but the distinction of such an effort should not be made lightly. Nor should the burden of making that distinction be necessarily placed on the one making the criticisms.

Take for example (from the pool of many, many examples) my criticism of John Lane's recent behaviour in regards to aaNet. I made vilifying comments based on my experience and opinion, and attempted to share those points of view. It'd be a scary world indeed if that should require me to pay a court to defend my statements. Indeed, sites like NotGoodEnough would have some real trouble on their hands.

Certainly there are many anecdotal stories of luducrious legal cases from the States, of people sueing over trivial matters. In many cases, sensationalising and Chinese whispers has obscured the complexity and merit of the original case. Often an attempt to sue is mistaken for a successful attempt. Nonetheless, the fact that the Internet offers an incredibly transparent platform for law to creep over International borders, and the appearance of an article like this (where the lawsuit was indeed successful), is surely cause for concern.


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