Freedom of speech online
A lawsuit against iBrattleboro.com has the potential to change the landscape of the Internet in significant ways.
The charge is that the Web site —designed to act as a bulletin board for local news and information — should be held responsible for allowing a libelous statement to be posted. It hits at the center of a gray area in electronic law, and as such, may well wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court before all is said and done.
In the early days of the Internet, courts were asked to rule on similar suits, and established that Internet service providers should not be held responsible for the content its users post. One attorney has likened the ruling to not holding newsstands accountable for selling papers containing a libel.
Had the ’Net stayed in stasis, that ruling would have sufficed. Since then, however, numerous variations have sprung up, from blatant gossip to bloggers to citizen journalists, to major metropolitan papers sending out “mobile journalists” armed with video cameras and laptops, whose work goes straight to the Web with no editorial oversight.
To date, the courts have generally followed the overarching principle that Web sites are not responsible for content they don’t create. So, for instance, a comment from an online reader is not the site’s responsibility, as long as the site’s operators are not actively screening the content before it goes up. Nor is it an ISP’s fault when a user posts child pornography.
But what happens when a blogger repeats a libelous post from an unmoderated online chat or links to kiddie porn on a blog? Or when an aggregator like Google News picks up a libel and repeats it via software robots to the world?
There are broader implications as well. Online ad services do not have to follow federal anti-discrimination laws, as long as they are not prescreening the ads they run. The courts have ruled clearly on what is permissible in print, but for now, they haven’t applied similar regulation to electronic communication.
In essence, the law as it stands has created two classes of speech, with Internet speech protected in ways other forms of speech are not. Congress attempted to address this in the 1996 Communications Decency Act, but the courts ruled that the law went too far and infringed on freedom of speech.
But as the distinction between content provider and content host on the Web grows murkier with each technological development, it seems likely that the Supreme Court will eventually seek to redefine its ruling to remove from online speech protections it now has over printed or spoken utterances.
The case against iBrattleboro.com has the potential to be a test case for when electronic communication oversteps the bounds of free speech.