An end to flame wars?

So it is possible to defame someone online in New Zealand. Not only that -- you can get stung for over $40,000 if you're not careful with your words.

So it is possible to defame someone online in New Zealand. Not only that -- you can get stung for over $40,000 if you're not careful with your words.

Fair enough. It's about what we were expecting from the O'Brien v Brown court case. Why should online publishing be any different to a newspaper, radio broadcast, magazine or personal letter? You can be defamatory in any medium and email, websites, chatrooms and probably even text messaging are all published media.

Actually, I'm not sure about text messaging, though I can't see any reason why it would be excluded.

Avoiding the defamation case itself and the whole Domainz, InternetNZ mess for a moment, I've been looking for a silver lining in the judgement. I can say I'm happy that we now have such a ruling. Online discussions all too often degenerate into three threads: one desperately trying to discuss the issue at hand; another making jokes about the discussion; and the third viciously attacking anyone they feel like for the crime of either disagreeing with them or agreeing but not being drums-and-cymbals wholehearted about it.

I use the internet on at least an hourly basis. It is the lifeblood of many journalists in this day and age and a godsend for anyone wanting to find answers to odd questions. I ask these questions not because I want to show someone up as a fool or a moron or an egotistical idiot but because I don't know the answer and would like to find out how something works or what relationship one technology has to another.

Most of the time, easily nine times out of 10, I get help and advice and make a contact who is worth the time and effort of staying it touch with. But every once in a while I strike someone who feels it their duty to either tell me how little I know, point out the grievous errors and assumptions in my question, or just outright belittle me for not being them. Rarely does this person also provide an answer or help in any way, but there they are, having their two cents' worth.

I've signed up for a number of mailing lists and newsgroups. There is one local group in particular which is fantastic. There doesn't seem to be a single person on it who sinks into the rabid "my technology is so superior it appears to you as magic" kind of nonsense. Consequently this mailing list, which is a technology-specific one, constantly has a host of questions being asked and replied to just as quickly. People even apologise for giving out the same information as another poster and there are very few disagreements. I've yet to see a full-blown argument develop. I have yet to post a question to it but not because I haven't got the energy to deal with any nonsense that might develop but because the archive is answering most of my newbie puzzles and the current crop of postings are providing me with a good basis for understanding. And no, I'm not going to tell you which newsgroup it is, because I like it just the way it is.

On the other side of the O'Brien v Brown case, the judge raises the spectre of ISPs and their role in online defamation.

This is a difficult area. In the print world it is my understanding that anyone looking for recompense from a newspaper, for example, would sue the publisher and sometimes the reporter but not the printer of the paper. In an online equivalent, the reporter becomes the poster, the publisher is the newsgroup or mailing list owner and the printer becomes the ISP.

I think it's highly dangerous to start pointing fingers at ISPs. Do we really expect them to monitor every packet that goes across their system? Would they get sued every time someone says something that isn't universally appreciated? I think that would cause more harm to the internet than targeting those individuals that do indulge in flame wars.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send email to Paul Brislen. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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