Conference highlights problems for defamation laws in internet age

Ian Bailey speaking at the UCC law society conference on media law. Pic: Dan Linehan

The complications the internet poses for defamation laws and people’s privacy have been laid bare at a conference in University College Cork.

The UCC law society event, chaired by Mr Justice Bryan McMahon, focused on the changes in media law and the implications that online commentary and international dimensions had on existing measures.

During a questions and answers session, Mr Justice McMahon detailed some of the difficulties people can experience when they have been defamed online, particularly by anonymous commentary.

He said it did not require sophisticated organisation to become an online publisher and away from formal chat rooms, it could be difficult to track down and serve the people responsible.

Defamation law specialist John Maher said people needed to looked at what kind of laws they wanted to build around defamation.

He said the law had to come back what we see as core “human values” and what we want to protect as a society. He said too often the discussion on defamation was guided by the last prominent case rather than standing back and looking at the application of the laws as a whole.

Similar problems were raised in the area of privacy by Trinity College law professor, Eoin O’Dell.

He said that over the last 20 years, people had incrementally surrendered their privacy rights without being aware of the consequences or considering what is appropriate.

People needed to rethink the philosophy that privacy was a question of what happened behind a person’s front door. “Victorian concepts of privacy that is incongruent with the reality of modern life,” he said.

Press ombudsman John Horgan said the controversial Royal Charter adopted in Britain to regulate the press had gone too far because it created an unnecessary legal dimension.

“We are at the bridge between yesterday’s problems and tomorrow’s problems.”


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