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Time to Rethink the Libel Process

by Charles Platt

I don’t much care for libel laws.

If someone seriously defames me, my classical recourse is to engage in a lengthy and expensive court battle which is a huge waste of resources. When a writer I know pursued such a battle, more than five years elapsed before he finally made it into court, and even with an attorney who took the case on a contingency basis, the value of the time that my friend spent on depositions, the process of discovery, and other legal maneuverings was greater than the damages than he won.

Because posting to online forums has become a widespread recreational activity, everyday people are now more likely to find themselves being defamed. All you have to do is piss off a particular kind of net.kook, and the abuse will begin. Example: On the old cypherpunks Usenet discussion list, I made a mild suggestion that someone might be wrong in one of his statements. He responded with a full-scale jihad, crossposted over dozens of news groups, stating variously that I was a child molester and an alcoholic. I wasn’t even sure of this person’s real name and location. And he had some kind of automated posting system that sustained the abuse for a whole year without any further effort on his part.

Orthodox net wisdom holds that we are all equal, now. I was equally empowered to make my own response to this abuse. But this ignores two factors. First, as any politician knows, mud sticks, while denials are easily ignored. It’s easy to create doubt about someone’s integrity; much harder for the victim to convince readers that the allegations were utterly groundless. And secondly, it’s very hard to track all the different places where allegations have appeared.

Here’s one suggestion. An attacker should be compelled to provide a full list of forums where the abuse has been posted, and the content of the posts. This would give the victim at least some chance to put out some of the fires.

Are there other options?

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