If the Internet is a frontier, then the online self-publishing phenomenon called Web logging, or “blogging,” is the virtual Wild West where any old varmint with a Web site can shoot his mouth off. A recent decision by the High Court of Australia, however, could civilize the Internet, perhaps to the detriment of the 1st Amendment.
The Australian case involves an allegedly defamatory article that Barron’s newspaper published about Melbourne mining magnate Joseph Gutnick.
Though the article was published in the U.S., it was downloaded from the Web in Australia. So the court ruled that Dow Jones & Co., the parent company of Barron’s, could be sued for damages under Australian, not American, libel law.
This is bad news for free speech in cyberspace because it means that Web content, wherever it originates, might be subject to foreign libel laws, many of which are much stricter than our own.
This wouldn’t matter so much if it meant simply that major media outlets would have to spend more time fending off complaints. After all, they can afford to, although all such costs eventually trickle down to consumers.
But what about pipsqueak bloggers who can’t afford to protect themselves from the umbrageous hordes at home, let alone abroad? The Australian precedent could burden them immeasurably and thus raises the question: Is policing speech in the blogosphere a good and necessary thing or just another way to mum the common man?
Actually, it’s both, which is why there is cause to be heartened and concerned.
We should be concerned because, until recently, the blogosphere has been a haven of free expression.
Though libel law has always applied to Web content, most bloggers have flown beneath the radar, making it possible to disseminate their sometimes injudicious remarks with virtual impunity. And most of the time that has been a good thing because, unlike in the gated confines of print newspapers and magazines whose hand-picked and bowdlerized letters sections abrogate reader feedback, anybody can participate in public debate on the Net. One-man bands such as Instapundit, Kausfiles, andrewsullivan.com and a hundred smaller operations are spicing the debate, keeping the media powers honest and putting our free press through its paces.
But there’s a flip side to this. As much as the blogosphere is full of brave and vital input, it’s also full of the careless, mad and sometimes vengeful ravings of half-wits who will say anything, especially about established journalists and writers, just to attract more attention to their sites. This can get ugly when content is unregulated.
In the major media world, editors and fact-checkers try to catch inaccuracies, excise lies and slanders and print corrections and retractions for mistakes that slip into print. But few bloggers follow this protocol. What they say, however outrageous or unfounded, tends to stick.
Full disclosure: This happened to me when I integrated four words from a Jackson Browne song into a piece I posted on my blog. Another blogger accused me of plagiarism, and the unmerited charge spread across the Web at frightening speed.
As any conspiracy theorist knows, falsehoods take on an authority all their own on the Internet. So when bloggers willfully defame those with professional reputations to defend, that is a serious breach for which they should be held accountable.
Blogging is one of the best things that has ever happened to freedom of expression and the press, and we should make every effort to protect its scrupulous practitioners. But freedoms come with responsibilities. Common journalistic standards of accuracy and fair play exist for good reasons, and bloggers, like the rest of us, must abide by them. By drawing attention to libelous Web content, the Australian case may force them to.