Libellous Rumours

This morning, I woke up with a slight hangover, but it pales into insignificance alongside the one which Demon, the ISP through whom you’re reading this, must have. For, after losing a landmark Internet libel case, they are facing a bill for damages and costs which could be around five hundred grand — not the sort of headache that can be cured with a cup of coffee and a bacon sandwich. It’s really the first time that libel laws have been applied to the Internet in this country, and the main thrust of the decision is that ISPs are now deemed to be liable for the content held by them. That cracking sound you hear is a huge can of worms being opened…

I have to say that Demon’s behaviour in this case is at least somewhat curious. Some of the messages in question were faked to make them appear as if the plaintiff, Dr Lawrence Godfrey, had written them: despite informing Demon of this, they took no action, which seems to indicate a severely laissez-faire approach. While you can certainly defend almost any content under the banner of free speech, it’s much harder to explain why you allowed forgery. In addition, having decided to rack up legal costs running into six figures, they then decided to capitulate shortly before the case went to trial.

The implications of this don’t really need to be spelled out, nor the inherent impossibilities. ISPs are now deemed liable for what they carry, but it would take a Chinese army of dedicated surfers to make the slightest dent in the volume of Net traffic. Even if they relied on responding to user complaints, the potential workload is huge: anyone who has been on Usenet will have seen the flame wars that break out. The number of potentially or actually libellous statements posted each day is no less enormous.

Much of the appeal of Usenet is its unfettered nature, but perhaps it should come with a big disclaimer: don’t believe all you read. For both the best and worst thing about the Internet is that anyone can post what they want. There is no quality control of any sort, and while there is a lot of accurate information to be found, there is also a whole load of dreck. The problem is telling the two apart, but this is really down to the surfer. Anyone who believes something just because it’s on the Net, is gullible in the extreme, and by extension, suing someone because the less rigorously-minded might accept it seems a tad unfair.

To some extent, what we’re seeing here is technofear. Any new technology will be posed as a threat to civilization, particularly when it becomes available to the masses — for an example, see the ‘video nasties’ scare of the 1980’s. This may partly because the smaller something is, the easier it is for it to slip under the wire, legally speaking, but I can’t help feeling there is something elitist here: an “is this the kind of book you want your servants to read?” thing. And particularly with the Net, they may have a point: it’s probably true to say that as the number of users increase, the average intelligence of them decreases, and with it the ability to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

In the early days, connection to the Net required industrial-strength computing equipment. Now, anyone with a PC and a modem can get on, and soon, even the PC is becoming more and more optional as things like games consoles come on-line. The problem with letting any idiot log onto the Net, is that there’s no shortage of idiots keen to try. Maybe we should add a healthy scepticism to the pre-requisites, alongside a working phone line.