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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Deal with cyberbullying in laws?

It's a perfectly normal reaction to the cases of cyberbullying that make it into the news: "there oughta be a law!" But when you read about thoughtful debates on the subject such as the one at the Paley Center for Media in New York this week (see this Wall Street Journal blog), you begin to wonder what new legislation based on the most extreme cases would accomplish - especially since MySpace and Facebook, for example, provide the identities of cyberbullies to law enforcement when they get subpoenas to do so (without a subpoena, they're required by federal law to protect users' privacy). Protecting users' privacy and free speech while at the same time protecting them from libel, defamation, and physical harm is complicated, these debates show. Advocates of new legislation argue that "Internet providers ask for something beyond what other outlets, such as newspapers and magazines, ask, since they are liable for what they publish," according to a debater cited in the Journal blog. But that is the argument of those who doesn't understand the difference between social-media companies and mass-media publishing. Though no analogy's perfect, a slightly better comparison is social-network sites and phone companies. People are libelous on the phone, but the phone company isn't held responsible. In other words, the source of the libel is the person being mean, not the environment. Another lawyer cited by the Journal blogger said that "the Yahoos and Craigslists of the world are serving a different function, serving as community hubs rather than sources themselves." What complicates this, of course, is that - in social media - the libelous person's statement can be seen by others. This hybrid of the phone-company and publishing-company models is keeping legal scholars and legislators on their toes! So we will all stay tuned. [For some of the most thoughtful coverage of cyberbullying litigation and law, see Kim Zetter's "Threat Level" blog at Wired.]

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