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...a lot of confusion among them about the difference between free speech and lying.

Naive & Libelous On the Internet

The more I wade into the world of the Internet, specifically, but not confined to, blogging, I’m continually amazed at the prevalent naivety concerning identity, privacy, and safety. People seem to believe that some sort of immunity has been granted them from the consequences of what they write on the Internet.

Libelous statements, personal revelations, and intimate details abound with little or no attempt to disguise one’s identity. While some may use a pseudonym for their publications, they still leave enough information that they can be traced if someone were willing to make an effort.

Hackers are pretty much able to go almost anywhere at will these days, making even so called private profiles unsafe repositories of personal data. But most of the time, hacking isn’t required because of the number of people who leave sufficient data in their public profiles to allow anyone with a little determination to find them.

I include myself among those folk who didn’t realize the potential for malice that’s out there. It wasn’t until I started to receive threatening comments, for what I thought was an innocuous story, on my blog that I even considered the ramifications of leaving my real name and city location public. I have since rectified that situation.

In the Globe and Mail today there was an article dealing with people who keep personal blogs and the potential for details to come back and haunt them. For instance, you write about some wild party or sexual exploits that may or may not have been real, and you apply for a job only to find the potential employer has searched you on the web and read that same report. What does that do for your job hopes?

How many political candidates in elections ten years down the road will find indiscretions revealed in “private” blogs coming back to haunt them? These and other scenarios are developed in the article. It’s well worth a read.

You would think that everyone knows about the dangers of Internet chat rooms by now. Predatory people preying on unsuspecting children, lying about their ages, making promises, doing anything possible to entice their “prospects” to come and meet with them.

But children are still falling victim to these stalkers. Just recently a man was arrested in Kingston, Ontario for trying to lure children to meet him. Only an observant mother stopped him from succeeding. To her credit, she agreed to help the police, and in a carefully organized sting they were able to arrest the perpetrator.

These people are able to avoid being traced by utilizing used computer equipment and software that have outdated personal information embedded into them. If no one is willing to participate in a sting type operation, it is almost impossible to trace a piece of equipment to its present owner. So many computer sales are cash transactions that sales records are virtually anonymous.

Every so often I still receive email inviting me to help someone invest their family’s wealth. For some reason or other they are unable to get it safely out of the country, usually some small African nation, so I’ve been selected to invest it for them. I only need to send them my bank account information….

The awful thing is that they must be having some success or they wouldn’t be continuing with this ploy. It’s sad when you think about somebody falling for this and finding his or her bank account drained. If this offer had shown up in the mail or someone had phoned, would they have been so ready to acquiesce? Or is it something about the Internet that lends these requests an air of legitimacy?

There are a number of so called political sites on the web which seem to serve no other purpose than to libel people on the other end of the political spectrum. Casting aspersions on one’s opponent has become standard fare for politicians, but they always manage to restrain themselves enough to not cross the line into slander during their speeches or libel in their ads.

Web loggers seem to have no such scruples. There seems to be a lot of confusion among them about the difference between free speech and lying. Taking their lead from the gossip magazines of “the more salacious the better,” they not only take political discourse to an all time low, but create such an atmosphere of mean spiritedness that hopes of reducing the polarization of our society continue to dim.

Whether they are repeating unsubstantiated rumours or simply making stuff up, it makes no difference in the eyes of the law. Why do they think themselves immune to prosecution? The Internet is as public as any other medium subject to these laws. The bloggers’ intent is to have other people read what they are saying — why else would they be doing it — so they can’t use the excuse of it being private in any sense of the word.

I can only hazard the guess that they still don’t see the Internet as “real.” Unlike newspapers, television, and radio there seems to be a prevailing misconception that what’s published online will not be treated as “news” and be governed by different standards. No other explanation is possible.

Unfortunately for them it’s fast becoming obvious that weblogs are becoming an integral part of the media. The first reports and photos from the terrorist attacks in London were generated by bloggers with the capability to shoot pictures and post reports to the web from their phones. These intimate and immediate first-hand reports provided on the spot reporting long before any papers or networks were able to get on the scene.

As technology develops, the potential is there for all of us to be reporters in the right circumstances. The difference between factual reporting and blogging is blurring quickly. Blog reports are being treated seriously and increasing in influence. As this happens there will be an increased need for all information to be substantiated.

It may have been the case previously that no one really paid attention to what was being said in the blog realm, but that’s not true anymore. Political figures, media stars, and other celebrities will be having the blogs scoured to try and sniff the wind and get a sense of the mood of the public. But they will also be on the lookout for anything that makes them look bad. If they find it, most of them have the resources to make a bloggers life very difficult to say the least.

Unlike science fiction we are not yet able to transmit simulations of our bodies in the ‘Net and travel through virtual space. But we are able to send our words, thoughts, and concepts to represent us. As in the real world, that can be more than enough to get us into trouble.

Edited: bhw

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.

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