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Back to Stephen Brookes Column Index



The 'Power' of the CyberPress

By: Stephen Brookes MBE

The majority of journalists use the internet as a useful tool for research, and transmission of written material. Few real journalists, and certainly no NUJ members would use it for any libellous transmission, as there would be a serious negative result from so doing.

However, Cyberspace does provide a new forum for negative communications about people, companies, and products. The cloak of anonymity and the ability to reach a large audience make the online world an attractive place to complain, spread rumours, mislead, or lie. Marketers that commit corporate money to enhance corporations' images and goods or services might wish that the Internet were like a newspaper-in which both those who originate and those who publish information are held legally responsible for its accuracy. However, reality in the twenty-first century is quite different.

Libellous statements, such as negative opinions, complaints, and rumours, can harm the reputation of a person, company, or product. However, libellous statements differ from these other forms of negative communication in that they contain factually inaccurate information that can be the basis for a lawsuit. The term "cyber-libel" has been coined to refer to libellous statements that are published on the Internet. But for the average journalist, articles or stories are published in the same way and with the same constraints as previously. Journalists and genuine publishers are careful about libel.

The laws providing a legal solution to the publication of false statements that harm a person's reputation are referred to as defamation laws. Defamation laws establish standards of accountability for both the originator and the republisher of defamatory statements. However, the application of the centuries-old defamation laws to libellous statements published on the Internet is taking a path different from that used in other media. Concerns about censorship, access, free speech, jurisdiction, and privacy are shaping the application of these laws to online publications, and a new method of 'blocking' unsuitable material is being created.

Look at China and its recent 'success' in blocking 'Google'. Once the Chinese authorities decided they did not like Google they reacted much as they often have when confronted by a foreign business which has made its way unsupervised into their country. What surprised observers, however, is they did so using sophisticated and surprisingly effective technology.

After at first experimenting with Google, they blocked access to the site for around two weeks and they diverted web surfers to local search engines, Google's competitors. Finally they took the blocks off to allow it to operate - but with strict limitations.

The pattern is a sign that the latest tightening of internet security is a lot more than a short-term response but is an escalation, and it's much more technically advanced than people would have given governments like China credit for. The "technical advance" is "firewalls" erected around web users in mainland China to block access to certain information. This includes material related to Falun Gong, the banned religious sect, Tibetan independence and the pro-democracy movements.

Instead of blocking the entire websites of foreign newspapers, as they once did, the authorities' new, smart electronic sniffers simply prevent access to sensitive material within those sites.

Since access to Google was restored in China any of China's estimated 56m internet users attempting to use it to gather information on 'sensitive topics' would have found the search engine automatically disabled.

It shows that it is possible for the same method to form a legal assault on 'libellous' material. Already, more than two dozen US states have passed measures against garbage mail. California, Colorado, and five other states, for instance, now require mass e-mailers to label advertising missives "ADV:" in the header line, which makes them much easier to block with filters. But state statutes are unenforceable against nonresidents and vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. One unified federal rule, such as the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, which banned unsolicited faxes, needs to be passed in Washington and then matched and enforced in other countries.

But, will I.T. be controlled (censored) internationally? Probably. But if incorrectly controlled for the wrong reason it will weaken and even may destroy one of the most powerful communications tools in history. Journalists could even have work more heavily censored that in the more conventional methods of publishing. And if draconian controls were adopted, journalists would lose the best research tool ever put at their disposal.

© Stephen Brookes MBE
Copyright © - Stephen Brookes MBE 2002 - All rights reserved


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