Public Expression, Liability, and Anonymity

August 9, 2009
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A colleague just sent me a link to a story about a Twitter user being sued for a tweet. At least he’s not being sued in London.

I’m strongly if not absolutely in favor of freedom of expression, so it’s hard not to find such cases depressing. Nonetheless, I don’t think  the legal landscape hasn’t changed.

Rather, what has changed (or accelerated) is that:

  • It is easier for people to express themselves publicly–and hence far more people are doing it.
  • The detached nature of online communication releases people’s inhibitions. Moreover, people not only don’t self-censor, but in some cases are deliberately provocative to attract attention.
  • The speed and efficiency of distribution (especially through search / alerts) means that the people most likely to be or feel damaged by an act of public expression are far more likely to discover that act.

So it’s not surprising that users are being sued for what they say online–it’s an expected consequence of the democratization of publishing, especially in the litigious English-speaking countries on both sides of the pond.

I’d personally like to see it a higher bar for someone to initiate a defamation lawsuit–let alone win it–but

A colleague just sent me a link to a story about a Twitter user being sued for a tweet. At least he’s not being sued in London.

I’m strongly if not absolutely in favor of freedom of expression, so it’s hard not to find such cases depressing. Nonetheless, I don’t think  the legal landscape hasn’t changed.

Rather, what has changed (or accelerated) is that:

  • It is easier for people to express themselves publicly–and hence far more people are doing it.
  • The detached nature of online communication releases people’s inhibitions. Moreover, people not only don’t self-censor, but in some cases are deliberately provocative to attract attention.
  • The speed and efficiency of distribution (especially through search / alerts) means that the people most likely to be or feel damaged by an act of public expression are far more likely to discover that act.

So it’s not surprising that users are being sued for what they say online–it’s an expected consequence of the democratization of publishing, especially in the litigious English-speaking countries on both sides of the pond.

I’d personally like to see it a higher bar for someone to initiate a defamation lawsuit–let alone win it–but I’m not holding my breath. Instead, I expect that we’ll see more anonymous expression by people who don’t feel the authenticity of disclosure justified the risk of retaliation. Oh well.

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