Is it libel, or is it lulz?
October 6, 2009 8:30 AM   Subscribe

Can you point me to some legal cases of "internet libel"?

Backstory: A while back, I wrote an article for a mainstream US newsmagazine website.

As could be expected, the article was open for comments, and a lot of the comments left were less than flattering. This didn't surprise me, as I've seen writer friends go through the same thing, and since most online major media outlets don't have much, if any, comment moderation. Roughly 90% of the comments were openly hostile, not just to my article or my opinion, but to me personally. Many of them contained actual, straight-up lies about myself and my credentials, and called for my dismissal from my day job.

I don't intend to pursue a suit, but this experience has made me consider the issue of libel more closely than I've yet had to.

It occurred to me that the comments would not only never be published in a "Letters to the Editor" section, but some might actually be considered defamatory if aired in other public forums. Should I ever wish to use this article on my resume or CV, it could be embarrassing, and potentially damaging, for employers to read the (untrue) comments about me.

It seems like libelous speech is tolerated to a surprising extent on the internet, not least of all because the people in question are anonymous or pseudonymous, and it would take a little bit of effort to track them down.

I am pretty resigned to what I experienced, as it's now water under the bridge and things have settled down -- so I'm not really asking for personal advice on my experience (though if you have some, you're welcome to toss it in.)

What I'm interested in is learning more about the hypotheticals and theoreticals of internet libel.

I really value AskMe for the quality of answers and the intelligence of the posters. I would love to get some links to, or stories of, past cases involving libel over the internet, or for Mefite legal brains to pontificate on why/why not "internet libel" is a legit issue, what the legal consequences could be, and how/if they could apply to a situation like the one described.

Thanks in advance, you all.

Also, I'm feeling a bit low today, so please be kind.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Godfrey v. Demon is the landmark UK case.
posted by holgate at 8:36 AM on October 6, 2009

There's the Autoadmit brouhaha. I don't know why this bullshit is tolerated on messageboards run my respected companies etc.

Sorry you got pwned. The Internet is a cruel playground sometimes. I'm sure you're a total rockstar, though! Don't listen to the bullies.

Also, if I were hiring, not only would I never ever read the message board, if I did, I would know full well that 99.99% of the people who actually comment are sociopathic, or tweens, or both.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:39 AM on October 6, 2009

You can read on Gawker about the recent "skank blogger" case (read these articles bottom to top) -- basically, some anonymous blogger called a model a skank in her blog (called Skanks in NYC), the model said this "impugned her chastity", and the lawsuit forced Google (it was a blogger blog) to shut the blog down and reveal the anonymous blogger.

(I don't know the details of the case, just read the first paragraphs of some of these articles, and never the source news articles or deeper, so you would have to read more to suss out exactly what happened.
posted by brainmouse at 8:40 AM on October 6, 2009

This article talks about a couple of recent cases, including one where someone successfully sued Google to give her information regarding a blogger who was slandering her. It mentions some others as well.
posted by urbanlenny at 8:40 AM on October 6, 2009

Marina Hyde was recently the subject of legal threats from Elton John on an article that appeared online - and was later removed - but I believe this was also published in the print Guardian.
posted by mippy at 8:48 AM on October 6, 2009

Sorry, just read your question properly! Chin up.
posted by mippy at 8:50 AM on October 6, 2009

Don't feel bad, I'm a magazine journalist too and for the longest time my Google results were dominated by the blog post of some guy who recklessly accused me of false and defamatory-ish stuff.

The classic Net libel case is the one where Clinton aide Sid Blumenthal sued Matt Drudge for claiming he beat his wife.
posted by johngoren at 8:57 AM on October 6, 2009

Sorry that you had such a shitty experience with it.

I'm just a paralegal, but as I see it, there are two really big issues facing internet libel suits:

1- It really is possible to be anonymous.
2- The internet is virtually impossible to control.

Take your situation. Say you had a crack team of lawyers and a ton of money and the desire to see those responsible for these comments in court. As I see it, you'd have to either file suit against or coerce the site to get the IP addresses for those comments, then file suit or coerce the service provider to give you the names/addresses associated with those comments. What if they're coming from a shared connection at a cafe/diner? At a college dorm? At a library with public terminals? And that's just finding the person -- you then have to try to convince a judge that what they said was defamatory toward you, and for purposes of people commenting on your article, you might (or might not) count as a public figure. Or it could fall under parody, even!

It's unfortunate, but the great strength of the internet (free information) comes at the cost of accountability for that information, at least as it currently stands. There's still very little legal precedence on the medium, but I foresee more and more people sticking to pseudonyms for even serious publishing in the future. There's just not a whole lot you can do once your name is out. And in close, I leave you with an example:

Results 1 - 10 of about 6,480 for "cory doctorow sucks".

Cory, as much as I make fun of him, understands that if he were to go after even one of those 6,480 google results, it would multiply a thousandfold. In this case, the best defense is a good offense: control the first few Google results for your name in and out of quotes, and for the rest, just brush your shoulders off. I don't think anyone who understands how the internet works takes anonymous comments after articles seriously, or even reads them.
posted by Damn That Television at 9:21 AM on October 6, 2009

Though from a pretty crude site, I thought parts of this FAQ answer some of your questions nicely...
posted by Grlnxtdr at 10:02 AM on October 6, 2009

#3 in particular addresses commentary.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 10:03 AM on October 6, 2009

You'll see things allowed in comments which would never make a Letters to the Editor page because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
posted by ewiar at 10:36 AM on October 6, 2009

If you look up Wayne Crookes, you'll find that he's sued a number of people (and corporations) for libel, specifically those who personally 'attacked' him on message boards and in comments on the net. This is in Canada, B.C., in the past year. If you can find his case, you can probably find which cases the plaintiff/defendant relied on.

(If you really want to find more legal cases, feel free to memail / email me - I finally have unlimited access to the big legal databases and need to learn how to search for cases better.)
posted by Lemurrhea at 11:24 AM on October 6, 2009

"Cory Doctrow sucks" isn't libel though.
posted by nomisxid at 1:14 PM on October 6, 2009

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