China and its Discontents

The Internet and Libel Law

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Should the internet be subjected to historical libel laws? Can they even be applied in the same ways? One of the biggest obstacles to applying libel law to the internet is anonymity. Of course many websites and blogs are attached to a specific name or organization, and even if they are not, the IP addresses of libelers can be identified. But certain software, such as TOR or VPN services, can conceal a user’s IP address. TOR isn’t just used for this purpose in Western countries–it’s also used by journalists and protestors in undemocratic countries to disseminate news. Furthermore, websites or internet service providers might not want to disclose their users’ IP addresses and even if served with a court order they might not be able to if they intentionally do not store that information.

Libel law seems out of place in the Wild Wild West of the Internet not just because “internet message boards are so filled with outrageous postings that no reasonable person would interpret such a posting as a true statement of fact.” (150) People online do not just commit mild negligence; they often intend actual malice. Social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter are prime examples of websites that could attract massive libel suits against its users, and yet the two are rather tame compared to other examples. 4chan is an infamous message board that is known for being crude, puerile, offensive, and at times libelous. One can also assume a large portion of 4chan users are underage. The internet, by disconnecting a person from their identity or any real-world consequences, frees some people from all inhibitions. The cost of publication is free and it’s anonymous–why not post it?

And yet the factors that make it difficult to sue for libel on the internet also add the greatest unique value to the internet. The internet has succeeded as a revolutionary technology precisely because the entry barrier is low and it is so easy to publish. While the internet has provided a platform to conspiracy theories and Obama birth-certificate claims that are most certainly published with actual malice, it has also turned the tables on the way information is distributed. With older forms of media, information is produced and consumed in one direction. With the internet, consumers become producers, and vice-versa. The average citizen is free to produce new creative works, remix old culture, and yes, libel his fellow citizens with abandon. If we “fixed” the internet so that every user had to conform to journalistic standards, we would destroy the essential characteristics of the internet that make it great.

Written by Will

April 1st, 2012 at 6:16 pm