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Libel lawyers descend on Usenet

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Comment Tony Blair is, he says, concerned about the failure of the legal system to deal with the real, everyday problems faced by citizens. Tony Blair should start posting on Usenet. Even his budget would struggle to fund all the libel cases that would result.

Suppose (just for fun) that you discovered a trend - the rise of libel cases arising from newsgroup insults - and wrote a brief report for your blog about this, and suppose that, being a professional journalist, you went beyond the normal blogging tradition, and actually researched the subject.

For example, you might contact the plaintiff in a ground-breaking lawsuit, and ask him how the heck he got into it, and you might quote something he said. That's pretty much what I did; and within a week, friends were asking me if I'd seen what was being said about me in the newsgroups. About the only thing I wasn't accused of (it can be only a matter of time before I am!) was paedophilia.

My professional achievements evaporated. My intelligence was independently assessed at around the level of one of the higher primates, and my knowledge, competence and judgement were all described in terms that, if any of my clients took them seriously, would have ended my income.

For someone who actually inhabits the flame-basted wastes of Usenet, however, such libels can be very serious. As a result, despite years of traditional restraint, the Usenetizens are starting to abandon their quaint old-fashioned beliefs in ultimate freedom of speech, and are taking their antagonists to Court.

"Anyone with web access and a quick temper, can find themselves facing a lawsuit," summarised one reporter who looked into this. Shannon Proudfoot (not a hobbit) quoted a Vancouver lawyer, Roger McConchie: "The internet is the single most important reason for the increase in the number of libel lawsuits in this country," he said.

The problem with internet libel seems to be the mismatch between the "village pump" atmosphere of most newsgroups, and the global reach of Google. For a group of people in a newsgroup, it must seem that nobody else cares. They behave like a group sitting around a table in a pub: to most of the rest of the world, they feel, the doings of a group of nerds focused on Western Saddle technology, or a bunch of Intelligent Design nutters, or even a group of mobile phone mast debaters is of no consequence. But no longer.

If it happened somewhere on the internet, Google knows about it; and suddenly, it matters. To quote one litigant in a recent libel case, he found his live-in lover forced to move out, because the flame war he was involved in got so wide-ranging that he was being accused of having a record of offences against children.

This accusation, he says, is groundless; but it was made right at the time that she was engaged in a battle with her ex for custody of her daughter. Lawyers for the other side of the custody fight dug out his "reputation" as proof that the woman associated with undesirables. Usenet tradition is of anonymous postings.

The result is that if you are attacked, it isn't a simple matter to send the warrant to the person who is accusing you, in public, of unspeakable things. And internet service providers (ISPs) are not yet aware of the change in the rules of the game.

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