Image by Felipe Bachomo via FlickrI’ve talked quite a bit on the radio over the past few weeks about Internet libel. It’s an interesting area and one where I think we all are guilty of being perhaps not quite as careful as we should be - particularly on Twitter!
With the ruling by a UK high court judge that blogging is essentially ‘an act carried out in public’, we not only lose the right to anonymity (not that I’ve ever done any of this stuff anonymously), but also have a precedent that social media interactions are ‘acts carried out in public’. That means we are open to charges of libel and defamation where we make assertions regarding people and also companies over social media platforms. There are already cases lodged as a result of material posted on MySpace, FaceBook and Twitter in both the US and UK. Having said that, the world's legal systems are still struggling with the whole issue - so nothing is clear.
Which means that, fine, today’s consumer has a megaphone – but today’s consumer has also to be aware that they may be held answerable for their use of a medium that has the reach (and, let’s face it, potentially way beyond the reach) of a national daily newspaper.
Similarly, any company threatening suit against people for something they have said online has to think long and hard about the consequences to the company’s reputation in the long run. While we are now seeing an increasing number of precedents being established by litigation, they are by no means concrete and supported by a body of established law – certainly not in the US and UK, let alone somewhere like here in the UAE. And companies 'picking' on bloggers, FaceBook users and other social media users are risking disastrous loss of credibility and respect from consumers - who are enjoying the new found freedoms, increased information flow and empowerment that using the Internet is bringing them.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the removal or alteration of offensive material is often all that is required to mitigate any serious threat of legal action. So online commentary is particularly hard to legislate for in laws that depend on the presence of immutable, physical, media.
In other words, we need to perhaps take a little more care, but companies with brands to protect need to cut consumers a hell of a lot of slack and, by the way, the answer for companies feeling wronged by consumers is dialogue, not 'cease and desist'.