The internet is often deemed to be like the Wild West. It is viewed as a lawless region where people can act outside the laws of the land. This is not the case. The jail sentences handed down to a number of individuals who tweeted or posted Facebook messages about the riots in England in August clearly illustrate that there are laws governing what can be posted online carry real consequences. Breaking the law online is as serious as breaking the law offline.
The law that the social media users broke was the Serious Crime Act 2007. Although the law was not set up to cover the use of social media, the use of social media was much lower in 2007 than it is now, the law of the land applies online to the same degree that it does off line.
The Serious Crime Act 2007 states that either "intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence" or "encouraging or assisting an offence believing it will be committed" is viewed as being as serious as carrying out the act itself. So if you post a Facebook message encouraging people to riot and loot then it viewed the same in the eyes of the law as if you were rioting and looting yourself.
Defamation and Libel Online
Defamation and libel laws apply to the online world in the same way that they apply to more traditional forms of print media, TV and radio. If you slander someone online without being able to prove it then you can be open to being sued for libel.
You may think that something you post about an individual of company may well be lost in the billions of webpages in cyberspace. This is not the case as many individuals and companies actively police what is said about them online. Many will issue civil proceedings if they feel the statements are defamatory.
The cyber smearing does not have to take place on a website you own for you to be open to being sued. If you have smeared someone using social media, message boards, forums, review sites, auction sites or email then you are open to being pursued for libel damages.
You also do not need to be the originator of the rumour. If you simply repeat the allegations then you can be sued. It is very foolish to just repeat allegations without double checking that they are true. A re-tweet of somebody else's link to a post about a rumour can place you in line for being sued. It is also worth noting that you cannot defame someone using their nickname and thing you are safe if the nickname is well known by the public.
Attempting to hide behind an anonymous username is also no protection from the law.
Difference between Slander and Libel
A landmark ruling in August 2008 by Mr Justice Eady drew a distinction between de Defamatory comments on internet bulletin boards and forums and those published within articles on websites. The Judge stated that those on internet bulletin boards were more likely to be slander and not libel.
Currently the UK is looking at reforming its libel laws and this will take into account both online and offline forms.
Tony Heywood ©