Defamation online revisited

groundhog

It's the 90s all over again!

I have been reading an article in the Chicago Tribune about online anonymity. Most of the story is centred around the defamation dispute between Lisa Stone and an anonymous individual going by the handle Hipcheck16 (see legal documents here). Lisa Stone was running for local office in an Illinois suburb when a story was run about her in the Daily Herald, the suburban Chicago local paper. An anonymous poster named Hipcheck16 started abusing Ms Stone in the coments section, this was read by her 15 year-old son, who became involved in a flame war. The teen invited the man to his house for a real debate with his mother, to which Hipcheck16 replied:

“Seems like you’re very willing to invite a man you only know from the Internet over to your house — have you done it before, or do they usually invite you to their house?”

Nasty stuff. Ms Stone was appalled, and initiated legal proceedings to discover Hipcheck’s identity prior to a defamation suit (petition of pre-suit discovery here). While I was struck by the ease with which Americans will initiate legal proceedings, I was left thinking about the issue of online defamation, and whether or not we need different standards for online discussions such as this one.

Allow me to elaborate. The Internet is filled with rubbish. Yes, we have created this amazing global communication tool of unprecedented influence and reach. Yet we use it to exchange pictures of cats (guilty as charged), or to watch paint dry and grass grow (warning, sites contain unsolicited wav and MIDI files, turn off your speakers if your ears are easily offended). A lot of the rubbish out there comes in the shape of comment threads. One need only read beneath the main line in any article about climate change, 9-11 Truthers, YouTube videos, IMDB forums, or any other area of controversy, and one purchases a ticket to Cuckoo-land. Whoever expects reasoned debate and civil discourse in a discussion list will be sorely disappointed. Flaming is the norm, you need to grow a thick skin.

If this is the case, shouldn’t we have different expectations of civility in such debates? I am not very familiar with the law of defamation, but to me the obvious intent is to safeguard people’s integrity. If one enters an online environment where flaming is to be expected, should we hold the same threshold of what constitutes integrity?

Having said that, I am mindful that such distinctions are impossible to police. Perhaps the law does not need to be changed, but user’s expectations should. Mothers should think twice about suing anyone for anonymous comments in a message board not read by many people, doing so will only draw attention to the original post, and it will be read by considerably more people who would otherwise have done so.

Update: Jas Purewal has informed me of a recent defamation case in England, G & G v Wikimedia Foundation.