A political argument that erupted in a remote corner of cyberspace and descended into vicious name-calling could lead to a spate of libel actions by contributors to Internet message boards, the man at the centre of the case claimed on Wednesday.
The dark side of the blogosphere was revealed by a libel action brought by Briton Michael Keith-Smith, a former UK Conservative Party member who stood for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Portsmouth North on the south coast of England, at the last election.
He said he was moved to sue after a woman with whom he was debating the merits of military action in Iraq began a campaign of name-calling that started by describing him as "lard brain" and culminated in falsely labelling him a "Nazi," a "racist bigot" and a "nonce."
Tracy Williams, a college lecturer from Oldham, in the north west of England, was ordered by a high court judge to pay 10,000 pounds (US$17,400) in damages, as well as Keith-Smith's 7,200 pounds (US$12,500) costs, and told never to repeat the allegations.
The case is one of the first of its kind between two private individuals to go to court and, said lawyers, highlighted issues that would become more prominent as Internet usage continued to grow and blogging, social networking and community sites became yet more popular.
Keith-Smith said he took action after a debate about the Iraq War in 2003 on a Yahoo! message board with about 100 members turned ugly. "She was very pro-Bush. Initially, she called me lard brain and I wasn't particularly concerned about that. Then she called me a Nazi," he said.
He has also taken action against a second poster, he said, with whom he claimed to have settled for a sum "in the region of 30,000 pounds."
"They started saying I was on a sex offenders' list and that people shouldn't let me near their children," said Keith-Smith, chairman of the Conservative Democratic Alliance, which bills itself as "the leading voice of the radical Tory right."
He resolved to take legal action after the pair accused his wife of being a prostitute. But once his lawyers petitioned the court to find out the identity of Williams, who contributed to the forum under a pseudonym, the abuse got worse.
"It's a matter of principle. I had no proof that anyone who read this took it seriously. I just didn't see why she should be allowed to get away with it," he said.
Legal experts said the case should be taken as a warning to the millions of people debating contentious issues on message boards, in chatrooms and on their own blogs that the laws of libel applied just as they would if the comments were published in a leaflet or newsletter.
But despite claims from some that Judge Alistair MacDuff's high court decision would hamper freedom of speech, most said the case merely provided confirmation of the existing law.
"You can't say this is something that should just be allowed to carry on. I don't think it is going to open any floodgates; it's a quite sensible application of the law," said Caroline Keane, a partner at media law firm Wiggin LLP.
But Mark Stephens, head of media law at Finer Stephens Innocent, said the case should trigger a wider debate about whether the libel law was best suited to deal with such cases. If a chatroom was self-moderating and had a limited circulation, he questioned whether such cases should ever reach court.
Most such cases never reach court because most complaints tend to be to an ISP or site owner, which would take down the defamatory content as soon as it was notified and the person making the libellous allegations would back down.
Souce: China Daily