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The ‘I hate Rachel Green Club’ gave us all a few laughs in Friends, but it’s also a good example of something that could have turned out a lot differently if it had happened in today’s internet generation, rather than in the days of Ross’s electronic keyboard and dodgy moustache.
Internet users are much more likely than ordinary citizens to be found publishing defamatory comments, this is basically due to what the law classes as ‘publishing’. Without the internet, it’s unlikely you’ll manage to publish something which is defamatory (i.e. a false statement which would lower public opinion of a certain person). It’s easy to see examples of defamation in the media, and some newspapers are worse than others (we won’t name and shame them here, let’s just call them ‘The Daily Fail’) at basically using stories that are not backed up by fact in the rush to get the first or most shocking story, which show an individual in an undesirable light. Debate as to the line between free press and defamation doesn’t really apply to the average citizen, but rest assured that you are equally capable of publishing a defamatory statement. In the olden days it was established that ‘publishing’ a defamatory statement could be achieved by as little as sending a letter. With the ability to send messages, emails, create groups and upload photos, most people don’t register how their actions could actually put them in a rather precarious position.
1. Inbox messages and emails
The issue with emails and inbox messages is that they are so easy. Unlike a letter, they’re sent straight away. The simplicity, informality and false sense of security you feel when you’re not chatting face to face means you’re much more likely to say something that could be considered defamatory without even realising. What’s worse, the internet has the added facility of forwarding emails. What many don’t realise is that the republisher of a defamatory statement is just as liable as the person who wrote it!
Most importantly, emails are not like letters under the law for many reasons. Although sending a letter under English law does not automatically count as publishing to the public (it has to be read by more than just the intended recipient), an email is much less secure than a letter. Added to this, it is completely international, so you could find yourself affected by another nation’s defamatory law.
2. Statuses and Wall posts
Here things get very difficult, law-wise. There is a lot of controversy and as yet not enough time has passed to thoroughly deal with this phenomenon. But it can be said that publishing something on a friend’s wall must count as publishing. You have no idea who can read your comment, and if your friend is an exhibitionist and has a totally public profile, literally anyone can read it. Then with only a few clicks you have done something akin to publishing an article in The Times, and that’s the risk you run with the internet.
Do you remember when Naomi Campbell was photographed outside an Alcoholics Anonymous building? She brought a lawsuit against the Mirror for invasion of privacy. In the law of England and Wales we have no right to privacy by tradition, but with expanding influence of the EU and human rights, its something English law is having to confront more and more. Data Protection laws extend just as much to ordinary folk as it does to celebrities. It might be a little extreme, but if someone puts a photo on facebook which tells the world a little too much about your private life, you could have recourse in the courts. When an unattractive drunken photo goes on facebook we all get the awful feeling of exasperation, because to us it may as well be on the front page of the Sun; all of your friends have seen it, including your mum. And they all commented. When can the ground just swallow you up? The law is by no means certain in this area, but there are indications that it will err on the side of protecting the privacy of your average Joe (the one that was pictured vomiting in sugarhouse with the caption “drugged up… LOL”).
There is no need to be totally paranoid, and implying your friend has cheated on a test or is a bit loose with their morals publicly on facebook probably won’t leave you with a £1 million lawsuit. But as we get older and get jobs, it doesn’t hurt to be more wary about what we put on the internet. As for gossip, maybe keep it face to face. Unless of course you think your room is bugged…