Dec 092012
The law applies online to social media and other web services

Last week Lord Justice Leveson of the British inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press gave his first public speech since handing down his report to the UK Parliament.

In this speech, Lord Leveson claimed that bloggers and social media users have an advantage over traditional media channels because they don’t respect the law. This is nonsense and detracts from the importance of the UK inquiry.

Speaking to the Communications Law Centre in Sydney last Friday, Lord Leveson gave his perspectives on how privacy is evolving as the media struggles with a 24 hour news cycle and the rise of the Internet.

One particular point he made was how the differing economics of traditional media and internet channels affected moral judgements.

“online bloggers or tweeters are not subject to the financial incentives which affect the print media, and which would persuade the press not to overstep society’s values and ethical standards.”

This view seems flawed – the reason for the UK inquiry into the ethics of the press was because the reporters at some of the nation’s top selling newspapers were overstepping society’s standards. They were doing this in the pursuit of profit.

At the other end of the scale, Leveson’s implication is that because most bloggers and social media users aren’t making money from their operations this makes them more prone to flaunting the community’s laws and morals.

What that view overlooks is that those bloggers, Facebook posters and Twitterers don’t live in magical castles sipping the fragrant, rainbow coloured milk of bejewelled unicorns – they have day jobs that pay for their online activities which often makes them far more aware of societal norms than those locked in the hyper-competitive and insular world of professional journalism.

Later in his speech Leveson expanded on this theme with a comment about the jurisdiction of bloggers and their servers.

The established media broadly conforms to the law and when they do not they are potentially liable under the law. In so  far as the internet is concerned there has been and, for many, there remains a perception that actions do not have legal consequences. Bloggers rejoice in placing their servers outside the jurisdiction where different laws apply. the writ of the law is said not to run. It is believed therefore that the shadow of the law is unable to play the same role it has played with the established media.

This view is clearly at odds with reality as again it was the widespread failure of the ‘established media’ in conforming to UK law made Leveson’s inquiry necessary.

Bloggers and other internet users being somehow immune to legal consequences is a clearly not the case.

A good example of this are the various British computer hackers and webmasters who’ve found themselves facing extradition to the US for actions which are either not illegal in the UK or would face minor penalties.

Probably the best example of Internet users facing the full force of the law is the persecution of Paul Chambers who was prosecuted and convicted for making threats against an airport in an innocuous tweet that the local police and airport management thought was irrelevant.

The force of the law that was thrown against Mr Chambers was impressive compared to the somewhat reluctant efforts of bringing charges against the dozens of journalists, editors and crooked policemen exposed by the Leveson inquiry.

At the heart of the difference between the traditional media and the online communities is a power and economic imbalance. Despite the declining fortunes of newspapers, they are still politically powerful, influential and well resourced. Which is a good reason why prosecutors, police and politicians are reluctant to hold them account for their excesses.

On the other hand the vast bulk of bloggers are not; they don’t have a masthead to hide behind or a large, well funded legal team to defend them which actually makes them an easier target for litigation and criminal charges.

Some bloggers may believe they are immune from the law, but the reason for that is because they are ignorant of the legal system’s reach. Some of them will pay for that ignorance.

The idea though that bloggers and social media users have some legal advantage over traditional media outlets because of their comparative poverty and location of their servers is simply wrong.

If anything the advantage is firmly in favour of those working for big business. This is the real lesson of the UK media scandals of the past two years.

  One Response to “Are bloggers immune from the law?”

  1. Good piece and I think your conclusions are on the money – it’s the established media, not bloggers who routinely transgress. Additionally (and demonstrably) the establishment has chosen to deal with conflicts of interest by either ignoring them, or putting profit before truth. I am thinking specifically of the SMH publishing what it knows to be highly dubious stats on residential rental vacancy rates, and auction clearance rates, in its Domain section. Fairfax of course owns APM, and has chosen to publish stats that any Year 8 student will tell you are dodgy, rather than report the more sobering numbers.

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