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Five ways social media law can surprise you

Up until recently, making offensive comments online was a bit like peeing in a crowded swimming pool, cheeky and somewhat satisfying, but ultimately there was little risk of being exposed. These days, however, it seems the law may be catching up and nowhere is the swimming pool of fervent opinion more crowded than in social media. In that vein, here are 5 legal disaster stories from the blogosphere:

The High Court of Victoria wants to be friends
In Victoria, Australia, police were not having much luck preventing an alleged Facebook bully from harassing what few friends he had left. After unsuccessful attempts to contact him through the usual means, they were allowed to serve a court order on the young gent via Facebook. They made a video of a police officer reading out the restraining order and simply inboxed him. Oh look, new notifications!

Hold your Tongue on Twitter
Anonymity is not what it used to be, as one local council in the UK found out. The council, faced with an anonymous user on Twitter making less than flattering remarks about them, came up with a new way of wasting money. They took their case all the way to California and convinced a court to order Twitter to hand over details of the account holder. As it turns out, the details provided were those of one of their own councillors. Ouch!

Leave nice comments and subscribe
Another case in the UK raises an interesting point on User Generated Content. Anyone who’s ever visited Youtube can tell you that UGC is not always flattering, but can one be liable for slanderous things other people say on your website? The answer, it seems, is yes… and no.

The tricky part is in identifying slander. Let’s say “anon123” leaves a comment on your site saying “John Smith molests cats”. John Smith is a made-up name, of course. Now, if John does indeed violate cats, the comment is not slander, it’s a fact. It’s only if John doesn’t have feline relations, that the statement is slander. But how do you know? And who cares?

Well, the situation could get messy if John Smith’s lawyers contact you, saying “Take it down or we’ll sue”. If it’s true, you have no obligation to take it down and you’d be allowing others to moderate UGC on your site. However, if it’s a lie and you leave it up, you might be held liable for publishing slander.

The reality is, when faced with the threat of legal action, all but the most hard-core webmasters would probably remove the comment, true or not. So it seems lawyers may be the moderators of the future.

Know your enemy
You’ve got to feel for this guy. When Rick Kordowski felt his lawyer had done an awful job in representing him, he did what most of us have fantasized about at some point – he started a hate site. What started as a small rant soon blossomed into the fountain of distaste for the legal profession that is solicitorsfromhell.com.

His sense of outrage is understandable, but his choice of enemy was frankly, stupid. His coup-de-grace was delivered when, to add insult to injury, he charged lawyers to take down some less-than-flattering content on one of their blogs. This act of both genius and lunacy gave birth to about a dozen court cases and currently Kordowski appears to be bankrupt. Surprised? No.

Links, rechts, links, rechts
Can simply blogging a Newspaper headline be an infringement of copyright? In certain circumstances, it appears it can. Meltwater is a news aggregating service that monitors the web for news relating to its clients. When it finds relevant articles, it sends the headline, first paragraph and a link to the client.

The National Licensing Authority in the UK took umbrage with its service and sought to require a licence to cover the publication of extracts of news articles. The short of it is that the court agreed that some headlines were capable of being literary works (yes, literary!), and would be protected by copyright law.

The obvious question that arises from this is “What about Google?” Well, it appears that charging for the service is a deciding factor. The implication for us is that if you have a paid subscription blog or newsletter that reproduces headlines, you may be infringing copyright.

Author | Rowan Puttergill: Columnist

Rowan Puttergill: Columnist
Rowan Puttergill is a technology evangelist and software engineer with a long career working in enterprise environments. He brings with him the experience of being the Technical Editor at SA Computer magazine, and a career history as a technical author. He is a huge advocate of open-source technologies, and... More

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