In response to John’s post 3

I think John brings up a very interesting subject to be addressed in this post: should the doctrine of Internet exceptionalism be applied in the case of free speech hosted on the internet? I believe the answer to this question must be a reserved “yes” for several reasons. First: The internet is a transformative technology due to its ability to scale dynamically. On any given day, the same blog post can be read by three people or three thousand people. Realistically, there are barely any ways to accurately predict the amount of traffic that something online will get, which greatly differentiates online media from what exists in the print world. In the print world, it is possible to divide speech into categories based on the degree of their reach; independently-produced libelous writing that does not reach very many readers has very little impact and thus can often be ignored legally, despite its illegality. We hold newspapers and official publications to higher standards because we can predict with reasonable accuracy that they will spread their ideas to large numbers of people. Thus we have stringent rules in place in order to make sure that all of their “factual” statements are in fact, factual. We tend not to regulate your average person’s speech because what they say tends not to really matter in the grand scheme of things. This has created a perception that the first amendment dictates that an average person can say whatever they want, which is not altogether true.

The internet changes this immensely. What we say online is instantly viewable to virtually anyone in the world. In addition, it is now so easy to search for and find information that what someone says online can have huge effects. Before, even if there was a libelous review of a restaurant in a newspaper, it was realistically unlikely that very many people would actually read the review before choosing to go or not go there. Perhaps if they were looking for a place to go without any ideas, they might look for a recommendation, but otherwise they would rely on hearing opinions via word of mouth or would just go ahead and try out the place. Now, however, most people will go on yelp or another review site both when choosing a restaurant blindly and when deciding whether to go to a particular one that they already had in mind.

The combined effect of all of this is that what your average person says online carries far more weight and is far more reaching than what your average person says offline. Therefore, it is necessary that we regard individual online speech with the same legal lens that we do other forms of speech that are capable of reaching vast amounts of people. Online posts have to be judged with the same scrutiny as newspaper articles because they operate the same way.

Now, the question here is whether or not the internet is exceptionalist, and previously, I answered “yes”. I would like to qualify that response: the law regarding speech on the internet does not need to be different from that of non-internet speech, just the way that we enforce the law. Our strictly legal definition of libel is a good one: maliciously printed false factual information. If we enforce anti-libel law, we benefit society by making factual statements separate from opinions; we make factual statements trustworthy and allow society to actually believe and rely on some of the information that they read. The difference is, where in the real world we cannot and do not need to monitor the content of all factual speech, online we have an obligation to do so. The internet is too big, too fast, and too unpredictable to try and limit prohibition of libelous speech.  It is impossible to predict who will read a libelous post on a review site or even a blog. It could be a few or a few hundred thousand; we cannot accurately predict what will happen, nor can we effectively monitor it, due to our tendency to create “viral” media that rapidly acquires large numbers of viewers. Anyone can host their own blog that could get more viewers than the New York Times and delude many people with false facts. We have to regulate all of this speech, or none of it, because realistically the internet is too fast to try and regulate it on a case by case basis. We have to hold internet speech up to the law because otherwise, we will lose the ability to trust the internet. Websites like yelp are immensely useful, but if people are able to post false statements of fact, then they will lose their purpose. Similarly, blogs are an excellent way to distribute valuable opinions and it is immensely important that people be allowed to freely express their opinions, but at the same time, we have to restrict the spouting of false facts; otherwise blogs will lose all of their credibility and value.

 

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