In Response to Theo No. 2

Though I’m not wholly convinced that treating online comments as fair game for libel lawsuits is a good idea, Theo’s arguments have led me to consider alternate solutions to simply letting the current situation of online immunity for statements stand.  Given the facts of Perez’s case, it doesn’t seem right or just to allow Perez to defame the contractor’s good name without cause, no matter how much she may dislike the man personally.  I agree with Theo that there is a line to be crossed in online commenting, and that once you begin to make statements of fact that aren’t actually factual, you cross that line.  Given what I know about Perez’s case, it seems she crossed that line, and in order for the contractor to gain just redress, we cannot simply wave our hands and declare Perez immune from litigation simply because her comments were posted online.  So, in light of our discussion, I’d agree with Theo (with reservations).  We can’t allow libel to take place online without some way of addressing that libel.  The question is, are the current laws we have in place to deal with libel sufficient for dealing with online libel as well?  Theo seems to think so; I’m not wholly convinced.

I hesitate to declare the axiom of Internet exceptionalism here, but I think it’s something worth considering.  Are online comments identical to offline ones?  Can we say that libel online is exactly the same as libel printed?  Is a website like Yelp equivalent to a newspaper like the New York Times?  In the early days of the Internet, I’d say no to all these questions.  The Internet then was limited, specialized, used by few, and certainly not ubiquitous.  Now, it is, if anything, more ubiquitous than printed media within American society, more relevant, more widely used than anything before.  What you say on the Internet lasts longer than what you say off of it, and anyone can read it.  So given this, libelous statements on the Internet can be at least as dangerous as libelous statements not on the Internet, because of the ubiquity of the Web.  In this sense, Theo is right that Yelp functions like a newspaper in providing ideas, because it does have the power to materially affect the businesses reviewed within it, as we see in Perez’s case.

And yet, I would once again caution against declaring all online speech to be fair game for libel, if statements of fact are made within the speech.  Perhaps, for websites like Yelp, it is not unreasonable to allow for such speech to be treated as libel, because those websites are designed to provide supposedly factual reviews of other services, and if they do not provide such facticity, they are, then, libel.  But I don’t think it’s a good idea to treat the entire Internet as synonymous with Yelp, because I think there are great portions of the Internet (for instance, anonymous user-message boards) where not being sued is crucial to the ability for such sites to exist.  Therefore, if we are going to extend the ability to sue for libel to the Internet, I think we would need to decide whether we want to extend that to all of the Internet, or only to sites that have been shown to materially impact others reputations, or only to sites that satisfy some other standard that I haven’t been able to fabricate.  The point I’m trying to make that I think it’s a good idea to allow for some redress of libelous statements, and yet I think we also need to balance the interests of free speech while we formulate new policy on the Internet, and we need to do so in a way that both encourages continued free speech and discourages libelous speech.  I’d be interested in knowing how my partner thinks we can address such an issue, since I’m not quite certain how it’ll be resolved just yet.

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