Threats of legal action against Australian tech site zGeek highlight the problems of defamation in the information age. What do you do to keep yourself safe online, and who should shoulder the blame?
Australian tech commentary site zGeek is currently in the middle of legal action relating to comments posted by its users on the site. While it's (understandably) a little quiet on details, the following statement is currently running at zgeek.com:
Hi all, It is well documented that ZGeek has been harassed with legal action since 2010. Unfortunately, we are once again being sued. This time around; ZGeek is named in a defamation suit along with the co-defendant, Google. We are being sued for user comments on the site and Google is being sued for listing these in their search results. Our message is, we are seeking any NSW based lawyer who can help us to fight these erroneous claims. The person suing us seems keen to go ahead, they have even planned to move interstate to sue me (now that's commitment!). This case is very important; if we are found liable, all webmasters in Australia will be liable for their user comments. Basically this is Australia's version of SOPA. If they win, no webmaster is going to allow free comments on Australian based sites as they could be sued. So it's important for us to find a lawyer ASAP. Or the only person going to be defending your freedom of speech online is me. I'm a person that is excellent at technology and computers, but my law skills are a little lacking.
It's an interesting case; while I'm not a lawyer either, I'm not entirely sure that it is indeed Australia's version of SOPA. Publisher liability for user comments is still (to the best of my understanding) a rather grey area as there's not a whole lot of decided case law on the subject, especially online where retractions can be swiftly enacted and offending comments deleted — which is sometimes all that's needed to defuse a costly legal situation.
Still, at the same time, as the editor of Gizmodo Australia, it does make me nervous. Australia's got some of the most stringent defamation laws anywhere in the world. We were home to the infamous Dow Jones vs Gutnick case, for example, and a similar case was threatened against Whirlpool (though that one was ultimately not pursued). Equally, while there's no specific law surrounding online communication, it's clear that if singled out, being sued might be only the latest in a long string of worries you might face.
Liability's a tricky thing, but based on many of the comments that are submitted, there's a lot of posters who don't particularly consider defamation issues when posting. What's your take on this, and how careful are you about what you post online?