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Blogging and defamation laws

There's a Forum organised by the KL Bar this Thursday on Blogging and Defamation laws . I'll be checking it out, and it's probably a good idea for any blogger who has a reasonable audience and likes to talk about other people.

The thing that has always struck me about blogging and defamation is the idea that just because you do something in 'cyberspace' it will be subject to different laws (or not subject to the usual laws). My basic opinion is that if you say something about someone, wherever you say it, you should be accountable for it.

I do think there are limits on the freedom of expression - basically inciting violence is my limit: so I can say that all people from Boogerland are congenital idiots, but I can't say that they should be burnt out of their houses because of it. On other issues relating to comment in the public sphere one should be able to pass comment on others, but be prepared to defend what one says if called upon. If I was to say that Joe Bloggs is cheating his customers, and then because of that his business is affected, then he should be able to sue me - it doesn't matter if I said it online or not, what matters is that his reputation and/or business is negatively affected. Of course, if he really does cheat his customers and I can prove it, then he loses the case and pays the costs.

So the bottom line for me is that on- or offline, there is no fundamental difference. But it's surprising how many people think there is - it's because of the whole 'cyberspace', 'virtual reality', thing - that what happens online is not 'In Real Life'. This was the point made in relation to some high school students in Singapore who had blogged about their teacher(s) in 2005.

The first time I remember a legal issue with blogs coming to the fore was around October 2004, when a commenter in Jeff Ooi's blog made some remarks deemed offensive to Islam (the post is no longer online, but the episode is recounted by Oon Yeoh). The issue that arose here was the responsibility of the blogger for the comments - Jeff Ooi supplied the IP address to the police (a move criticised by some) and later stated that "If someone posts something offensive, it is up to the owner of the blog to delete it.- (September 2005).

Around the same time Mack Zulkifli, author of the blog 'Brand New Malaysian' (no longer online since July 2006), was also forced to deal with the racially provocative comments left by a person calling him/herself 'goodman'. He was also accused of promoting censorship because he reported the comments to the police. One point he made was that leaving comments was different to someone just letting off steam in a public place - "[The comment] stays there, available as a form of public record and in the case of the internet, tracked, indexed and stored in public domain by search engines, such as Google, Yahoo etc.- (Zulkifli). Since that 'goodman' incident there was been an increase in the number of bloggers who required that you register with them first, or that they vet all comments.

This is one key difference between the old and new media; new media usually involve an element of interaction, so individual responsibility may be blurred. As a parallel - would I be responsible for someone who spray painted a racist comment on the outside wall of my garden?

This does relate to an important difference between on- and offline social interaction. Usually, online interchanges remain visible a lot longer than offline ones: so if I get in a drunken argument with Jane one evening in the bar, and accuse her of having loose morals with a football team, then probably it will just be a blurry memory for everyone the next day, and she will never speak to me again. But if I do it online, and put it in her comments or somewhere, it may be online for a long time, and then one day her fiancé sees it and freaks out and dumps her...

As a society we are going to have to learn to deal with these issues. For example: will everything being cached by Google now still be online in twenty years? Who will own that information? Will we have the right to delete old stuff we don't want anymore (e.g. comments we have left on another person's profile in Facebook)?

It strikes me that that two of the posts I mention above are no longer online, probably because the bloggers owned their own site and therefore had complete control over the contents. Most people, however, use free services that often claim some form of ownership or exploitation rights to whatever is produced via their services. So, one solution is for everyone to own their own sites.

**Update same day**
I just noticed this person saying Yahoo! has deleted all profiles with no warning. I don't know the details but I'll bet it's annoying. The problem is, because it's free you have no control - really, we have to look forward to the day when your 'base of online action' (your profile, blog, avatar, email, etc.) is your own, and operates on open standards.

**Update 2 Nov. 2008**
Here are links to all the posts I could find announcing the Forum - most are simple announcements with little discussion:
• Screenshots...: 'Blogging & Defamation Laws'... Oct 23, Bar Council
• The Middle Ground: Freedom of speech, blogging and defamation
• Forum on Blogging & Defamation Laws
• DragonKenLai: Forum on Blogging and Defamation
• all the world's a stage: Forum on Blogging & Defamation
• u-jean: Website, events, events, events
• The Independent Spirit: Forum on Blogging & Defamation Laws
• dyvallion: Forum on Blogging & Defamation Law
• Malacca Bar: Forum on Blogging & Defamation Laws
• thestar Citizen's Blog: Forum on Blogging and Defamation Laws
• Malaysian Bar Forum: Forum on Blogging & Defamation Laws