Be careful about an online rant — you could end up in court
Saturday, November 17, 2012
There are no frontiers for the internet accusers and abusers, writes Dan Buckley
By Dan Buckley
Social media such as Facebook and Twitter have become the new Wild West, allowing anonymous users to publish vile comments online and brand innocent people guilty of crimes without the slightest proof.
In Ireland, as in many countries, neither the police, courts, nor legislators seem capable of tackling what is fast becoming a huge problem. For the innocent person, being accused of wrongdoing through the internet can seem like an unending nightmare, either having to spend thousands on court proceedings or put up with online vilification.
Those who engage in online ranting may feel that they should have the right to say whatever they like. After all, Article 40.6.1.i of the Constitution says the State guarantees the right of citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions.
But, as barrister Kieron Wood explains, the right of freedom of expression in Ireland is not absolute.
“The Article goes on to say that, because of the importance of educating public opinion, the State will try to ensure that the organs of public opinion such as the radio and the press [it does not mention television or the internet] keep their right to liberty of expression, but they shall not be used to undermine public order, morality, or the authority of the State.”
The Constitution also pledges to vindicate the good name of citizens. Article 40.3.2 says: “The State shall, in particular, by its laws, protect as best it may from unjust attack (and, in the case of injustice done, vindicate) the life, person, good name, and property rights of every citizen.”
Freedom of speech is also guaranteed by Article 10 (1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas, without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”
But Article 10 (2) subjects this freedom to such restrictions “as are necessary in a democratic society...”
So where does that leave users who tweet or retweet? We have to look further afield to get some idea of where authorities are trying to cope with the ever expanding internet. Retweeting a comment on Twitter or clicking “like” on Facebook can result in a lawsuit and even imprisonment in some countries.
A cybercrime law in the Philippines that could see people jailed for 12 years for posting defamatory comments on Facebook or Twitter is generating outrage among civil rights groups.
The stated aim of the wide-ranging law is to tackle online crimes, including pornography, hacking, identity theft, and spamming. However, the law also includes far tougher penalties for online libel than libel in traditional print or broadcast media.
Nearer to home, the difficulties in trying to regulate 21st century communications with 20th century laws are evident, and the problem is not confined to defamation.
In Britain, hundreds of people are prosecuted each year for posts, tweets, texts, and emails deemed menacing, indecent, offensive, or obscene, and the number is growing.
Figures obtained by the Associated Press show a steadily rising tally of prosecutions in Britain for electronic communications. The number of convictions increased from 873 in 2009 to 1,286 last year.
The AP’s Jill Lawless says: “Behind the figures are people — mostly young, many teenagers — who find that a glib online remark can have life-altering consequences.”
No one knows this better than Paul Chambers, who in Jan 2010, worried that snow would stop him catching a flight to visit his girlfriend, tweeted: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high.”
A week later, anti-terrorist police showed up at the office where he worked as a financial supervisor.
Chambers was arrested, questioned for eight hours, charged, tried, convicted, and fined. He lost his job, amassed thousands of pounds in legal costs, and was, he says, “essentially unemployable” because of his criminal record.
But Chambers, now 28, was lucky, says Lawless. “His case garnered attention online, bringing high-profile Twitter users, including actor Stephen Fry, to his defence.”
In July of this year, two and a half years after Chambers’ arrest, the High Court overturned his conviction.
Justice Igor Judge ruled that the law should not prevent “satirical or iconoclastic or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter, or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it.”
But where libel is concerned, it is a different matter.
On Thursday, the BBC had to pay substantial damages to the former Tory politician Alistair McAlpine after he was wrongly implicated in child sexual abuse.
Although not named in the report, he was identified in a way that quickly led to his being named on the internet as a paedophile who preyed on boys in a children’s home in north Wales 30 years ago.
McAlpine, treasurer of the Conservative Party in the early 1980s, said he was horrified at the allegations, and intends to pursue those who repeated the false accusations on the internet.
The most high-profile case of internet libel in Ireland occurred early this year and involved a Dublin student wrongly accused of dodging a €50 taxi fare. Eoin McKeogh was forced to defend himself after having his name blackened on the internet when the taxi-driver posted a video taken inside his cab on YouTube of a young man running from his taxi without paying the fare.
The video, dated Nov 13, 2011, clearly shows the man’s face and a friend can be heard calling him “Eoin”. It was assumed, wrongly, that the video was of McKeogh, and he was subjected to numerous vile posts and accusations online. Luckily for him, he was able to prove comprehensively that he was not the culprit as he had been studying in Japan at the time the video was taken and produced his stamped passport in court.
Even so, the lawless nature of the internet and the extent to which it can instantly destroy a person’s reputation was starkly revealed. Unlike the print media, the numbers of those who view false accusations are not confined to a newspaper’s readership but can quickly go viral.
McKeogh’s barrister, Pauline Whalley, put it succinctly: “’With a few key strokes, you can destroy a person’s reputation.”
Even after the court hearing, McKeogh’s nightmare continued and he still found himself being accused online. “I was shocked to see all the postings,” he said. “They all presumed I was guilty and attempting to gag the media. I also had a fake Facebook page created.”
McAlpine can relate to that. “To suddenly find yourself a figure of public hatred, unjustifiably, is terrifying,” he said, adding that he expected some of the stigma arising from the episode to remain with him for the rest of his life.
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