Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bloggers and Tweeters beware: From Libel to Twibel

Reason has a comprehensive posting on blogger and now “Tweeter” exposure to libel or “Twibel” lawsuits, with lots of cross references therein, making the piece from April 2009 a kind of annotated bibliography (like what freshman English professors like to assign) on the whole problem. It’s good fodder for a college or AP English term paper, and I hope some kids will take this topic up. The master piece by Jeff Winkler is called “Blogger Beware” (April 13) and, well, that backs up to another Winkler offering April 9 in Reason, “Getting Sued for Twibel or Tweet Once & Destroy”, link here.

Most of the Twitter crowd has heard about Courtney Love’s litigation about a tweet now. But more relevant may be that the number of lawsuits involving ordinary blog posts increased rapidly in 2008. Amateur bloggers often have no idea that they can be held responsible for defamation, or that they might have to expend considerable resources defending themselves even when what they posted was absolutely true. Umbrella policies seem to cover blogs only when completely non-commercial (with no display ads). And the liability insurance industry, as noted before, has little (or essentially no) experience in how to underwrite the “amateur” risk so the problem is troubling. Remember, until the Internet age, practically everything in the book or periodical or newspaper publishing business that went out was supposed to be supervised and fact-checked and go through what amounts to third party due diligence. That whole expectation simply got forgotten, and then probably hid further underneath Section 230 and the DMCA Safe Harbor (however inadequate from the average speaker’s perspective). Add to this, of course, video blogging and YouTube. I chuckle as I thing about the “attitude” of the mystery mobile blogger in CWTV’s “Gossip Girl” – as a lot of us became “gossipers”. Yup, Serena of whatever he name is, sets an example “for the kids”.

More troubling, still, is the “rumor” that the FTC will hold bloggers responsible not only for failing to disclose paid “endorsements” of products but also for false statements about products. I suppose that’s only if the blogger was paid to endorse something. Otherwise an offhand remark about whether an anti-virus product catches a particular online worm could get a blogger in trouble with the fibbies (and maybe the goons, too).

The Reason piece links to some cases about sites set up to complain about a particular company, product or service (doctors’ rating sites come to mind). Yes, this gets attention, this restores the balance of power. Yes, the established bureaucratic system doesn’t work. But ever wonder about the person who sets up the complaint site? Would future employers worry that the person is dangerous to work with, that he or she will badmouth them too if they misstep even slightly? True, even if you exercise your rights and use the system and “sue” the world could look at you as “litigious”.

I “committed myself” to citizen journalism and free content some years ago. What an answer to the offshoring of the old fashioned stable workplace. Oh, you don’t need to be professional, you don’t need to get paid, you don’t need benefits, you don’t need anything… Conservatives love this.

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