Minimising the risks in blogging

Published in The Star Newspaper on 8 January 2009.

BLOGGING has become the new way of life of Malaysians. It is without doubt a new form of media where a large number of the public refer to these days in addition to the mainstream media.

With this comes responsibility. It is settled that bloggers are liable for what they say and for what other people post on their blogs. The following laws are applicable to bloggers:

> Civil and criminal defamation;
> Sedition;
> Communication and Multimedia Act 1998; and,
> Copyright infringement.

The above list is not exhaustive and it is hoped that the following will serve as a short guide to minimise the risks of blogging.

One of the most common actions brought against website owners (which include a blogger) is a defamation suit. The definition of defamation is not a static concept.

It has been defined that a statement may be defamatory when it tends “to lower a person in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally” or “to cut him off from society” or “to expose him to hatred, contempt or ridicule”.

Defamatory statements may not only arise from written postings but also from videos (embedded in the blog), pictures/drawings/graphics, sound and even hyperlinks. Recently, a Malaysian High Court held that a website owner is liable for a hyperlink posted by a commentor that links to a website containing a defamatory statement.

The consequence of being liable for defamation is grave. It can drain you financially and make you a bankrupt. It can even put you in jail if it falls under criminal defamation. Even a food review blogger can be subject to a defamation suit. Thus to avoid such problems, the following steps are recommended:

> Avoid potentially defamatory statements;
> Moderate comments;
> Identification of commentor’s details;
> Warning to commentors;
> Disclaimer;
> Disable Cache; and,
> Anonymity.

The most obvious, and the most important, step to take from being slapped with defamation action is to avoid defamatory statements.
Always ensure that what you write is true. If you are unable to verify the truth of a statement on your blog, junk it. Avoid criticising other people on your blog, as sometimes the criticism can be taken as defamatory.

Another type of entry you should avoid is rumour-based entries. It is advisable not to repeat a rumour made by others, unless you can prove it.

As mentioned earlier, what got many website owners into trouble is what their readers posted. And website owners are liable for comments made by other parties published on their website.
In this regard, website owners can be subject to an application to the court compelling them to reveal the identity of the commentor. It should not be much of a problem to website owners to reveal the identity, but sometimes the order goes a bit further than that.
For example, there were cases where website owners were compelled to reveal Malaysian identity card numbers of their commentors, and also slapped with costs payable to the complainant.

Thus, it is useful to set up a system to filter comments and require commentors to register themselves before they can submit comments. Alternatively, the website owner may have in place a stringent approval system where comments will only be posted upon approval.
Further, you may also reveal the details of the commentors such as their Internet Protocol (IP) address, time of posting and e-mail address on the website upon the posting of the comment.
By revealing such details, the commentors can be traced through their Internet service provider, etc. This may restrain commentors from posting malicious comments.

It would also be useful to place a warning stating that commentors are liable for what they say or that you will reveal their details to the authorities upon request. The warning can be fortified with a disclaimer, which could be useful to discourage defamatory statements.

The disclaimer can go along these lines: “The comments contained on this blog reflect the views of the author and do not in any way represent that of the owner of this blog.” This serves as notice that the views of the commentors are not shared by the blogger.
Many consider websites such as WayBack Machine and Google Cache as God‘s gifts to computer geeks. These websites keep a record of your website and are quite useful when you lose the contents of your website. You can retrieve some of your lost documents from there.

But this also means that anyone can retrieve anything deleted from your website, including defamatory statements that had been removed. But not to fear, for there is also a special option where you can stop these websites from keeping a record of your website.
If all the above fail to avoid a letter of demand or you just wish to have a carefree blog, then try blogging anonymously. This would include setting up a blog using a pseudonym with no trace of the person’s identity on the blog. Some do it for their own protection, and some do it so that they cannot be found.

Although distasteful, this allows bloggers to avoid being discovered and to post entries without any restriction. But if caught, they will suffer grave repercussion. In a recent Canadian court decision, anonymous electronic postings of defamatory material were not only actionable but would also warrant a high damages award.
With the upcoming High Speed Broadband (HSBB) rollout, we can expect more content-rich blogs. With this, the dissemination of information may expand to methods which are unknown to us now. There will therefore be new laws and challenges ahead.

Putik Lada, or pepper buds in Malay, captures the spirit and intention of this column – a platform for young lawyers to articulate their views and aspirations about the law, justice and a civil society. For more information about the young lawyers, please visit www.malaysianbar.org.my/nylc.

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