If you're used to expressing your views freely in the pub, you need to take care when sharing those same views on Facebook or forums. We explain why
For most journalists, the law is never far from our thoughts – we have to consider such legal aspects as libel, copyright and contempt of court whenever we write a story. Most other people, until very recently, wouldn’t have had to worry about any of those things.
But the internet has changed all that - specifically the advent of social networks. Facebook, Google Plus, web forums and blogs make publishers of all of us, and that means all of us (or at least those of us who make website posts or comments) need to be aware of some aspects of how the law works.
The law of libel, or more broadly ‘defamation’, protects the reputations of people and companies. A defamatory statement is one that ‘tends to’ expose someone to hatred, ridicule or contempt, lower them in the eyes of society or disparages their business.
The words ‘tend to’ mean that someone complaining doesn’t actually have to show any harm caused, just that a statement would have tended to cause harm. The law doesn’t state precisely what a libel is (for ease, we will regard libel and defamation as the same), which is where the courts come in.
Libel becomes an issue for web users when they publish opinions about people, companies and products. If the subject of a comment thinks your view is inaccurate and could damage their reputation, they could sue you.
It’s important to ensure that what you say is true, and more importantly, that it can be proved. If you say you were charged a certain amount, for instance, make sure you have the receipt.
If you’re advising people not to use a plumber because he damaged your house it’s important to have some evidence, such as pictures or a report from another plumber or a surveyor.
If a case makes it to court, the onus would be on you to prove your comment was not libellous, and saying the comment was ‘just your opinion’ is no defence. Whether you’re being published on the website of a national newspaper, on Computeractive’s forums, on your own blog or on a social network such as Twitter or Facebook, the golden rule is not to press the ‘submit’ button in anger.
Reflect on comments before posting, and note that the old favourite of TV show Have I Got News For You – the word ‘allegedly’ – is not enough to get out of a libel accusation.
Many of us have recorded songs from the radio to give to someone, or copied a picture to stick on an email or home-made greetings card. In the pre-internet days that sort of use, technically a breach of copyright, would have been overlooked.
But nowadays, because blog entries or Facebook postings can be seen by millions, companies tend to take a dim view of that sort of ‘borrowing’. Most pictures and text online are covered by copyright, so it’s not legal to copy them and paste them anywhere else without permission.
If you’re posting them somewhere sufficiently private, it’s unlikely the copyright holder will ever find out, and even on more popular sites the chances are that nobody’s going to take action over a copied newspaper column.
If someone does complain, the first step is usually to remove the post and in most cases that will be the end of it.
There is a legal clause called ‘fair dealing’, which allows people to reuse an extract of text or a picture for the purpose of discussing or critiquing it, but they must have acknowledged the original, usually by adding the name of the author or publisher and a link to the original website, but the law is loosely written so it would be down to the courts to judge.
The Creative Commons movement provides a way to find pictures, text and more that are free to use – have a look at its search engine – which finds works whose creators have licensed them for free use, although most of the time you’ll need to credit the author.
Contempt and more
Contempt of court is something reporters have to consider when covering court cases. It means once someone has been arrested you’re not allowed to print anything about them apart from minor identifying details.
During a trial people are only allowed to publish statements made in court, not general comments or background about the defendant.
In some recent high-profile cases, such as the murder of the Bristol architect Joanna Yeates, several newspapers overstepped the mark, and had to pay out-of-court settlements to a Bristol resident.
Repeating libellous comments made on websites is unlikely to land you in any trouble if others also do – but this isn’t guaranteed.
Anything you put on the internet should be regarded as public information.
As Computeractive went to press we learnt of a primary school teacher in Hull who got into trouble for posting disparaging comments on Facebook about people in her school’s area. While she’s unlikely to have broken any laws, it was unwise to have posted in such a way.
More seriously, Paul Chambers was last year convicted under nuisance phone-calling laws, and fined £1,000, for joking about making a bomb threat to an airport in Doncaster.
We all have conversations in the office or the pub about current affairs and it’s normal to air controversial opinions. But Facebook and forums aren’t the same as a pub – we can be held responsible for what we say online.
Have you fallen foul of the law online? Let us know by emailing email@example.com
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