p2pnet.net News View:- Two lawsuits advance the notion that the day is coming when libel law will chill on-line comments.
Anyone who has spent any time on the Internet knows it can be a hellhole of petty and large vendettas, backbiting and outright lies. In fact, many people posting to any part of the Web have so far been getting a free ride on what they say on-line.
The problem is exacerbated by an imperfect understanding, by Americans at least, of their constitutional free-speech rights, which do not cover such things as libel. As any seasoned journalist will tell you, libel is often not easy to identify, and if someone decides to challenge a statement, you had better be prepared to back it up – especially in Canada, where the burden of proof lies with the publisher who printed the contentious statements, not on the aggrieved party.
Two current cases underline the point.
On Vancouver Island, B.C., Jon Newton is having his hands full defending himself in a suit launched by Nikki Hemming, CEO of Kazaa, which owns the Kazaa file-sharing software that has landed Ms Hemming in an Australian court. At issue is Ms. Hemming’s claim she had been libelled on Mr. Newton’s peer-to-peer file-sharing website, called p2pnet.net, by an anonymous poster who commented about court proceedings into her assets, and demands Mr. Newton reveal the poster’s identity.
Someone claiming to be that poster has come forward, but that apparently isn’t enough to stop the suit. Ms. Hemming’s suit rests on the notion that as the owner of the website p2pnet.net, Mr. Newton is responsible for people who post comments on his website.
Similarly, Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha, Neb., is suing the (still) anonymous posters, who had allegedly edited an item on Skutt written for Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia that is written and edited by the public.
The editors of the post obviously have a bone to pick with Skutt, charging that the students there are “complete idiots,” use obscene language and describe drug use at the school. A school could be ruined by such talk; the posters cannot hide behind the notion that their writing is simply their opinion.
These particular suits aren’t the first of their kind, nor will they be the last. They might disappear from the headlines, but they’re still advancing the notion that on-line, free speech isn’t so easy to define.