Only 5% of internet users are clear on their legal rights and responsibilities when posting comment online, according to new research from global legal services organisation, DLA Piper. Even those who have posted a comment on the internet are unsure about their legal liabilities with over three quarters (77%) of bloggers uncertain or unaware of where the law stands.
The research, conducted by YouGov, revealed a widespread lack of clarity and consensus amongst internet users about the role of the law in relation to blogging and user generated content (UGC). Only a third (33%) of regular internet users have read the legal terms and conditions, disclaimers and guidelines for posting comment on the internet forums they use. This is despite the fact that one in seven (14%) of users have had their comments removed or taken down in the past, rising to more than one in four (28%) amongst those who blog.
Not only are users unaware of their actual legal risks online, they remain to be convinced that they even should be liable for the comments they make. Less than half (42%) of all internet users think bloggers should be held to the same legal standards as journalists when publishing opinions, but of those who actually blog themselves only a quarter (27%) believe they should be subjected to the same rules. Internet users are equally ambivalent on a potential voluntary code of conduct for bloggers and online commentators. Nearly half (46%) agree that a code should be established, 15% are unsure and only 4% are firmly opposed. Opinion is even divided amongst bloggers themselves, with over a third (34%) directly opposed to a code of conduct, but about the same number (32%) in support of it.
Duncan Calow, a digital media law specialist and partner within DLA Piper's Technology, Media and Commercial practice commented: "The combination of confusion and complacency about the relationship between the law and UGC puts users at risk as they come under increasing scrutiny online. Blogs and online forums may differ from traditional media in their style and purpose, but their content is still publicly consumed and they have the equivalent potential to cause damage and offence and infringe others' rights. Far from being immune from the law, UGC is in particular danger of falling foul of it."
"Many people are aware of the need for care when using the internet at work - as well as issues surrounding online piracy. It is clear, however, that many internet users would also benefit from, if not welcome, some clearer guidance about posting comment online. There is a big difference between censorship and protection – some have called for a code of conduct to provide guidance for bloggers and other users. That won’t change the law and many bloggers may still say they'll "publish and be damned" - but they ought to be damned sure what the law says before they do."
The research also revealed the overall volume of people commenting online is rising – over half (54%) of respondents had posted some form of comment online, whether on a blog, message board or social networking site. 18-24 year olds are particularly active with the vast majority (84%) participating in some form of UGC.
The importance of individual responsibility in posting messages online was raised further last month following the conviction of a blogger in Flintshire, Wales, who posted offensive messages about a police officer’s new-born baby and wrote about his perceived mistreatment at the hands of the police and Crown Prosecution Service. He was prosecuted under the Telecommunications Act, relating to the sending of an electronic message.
UGC: some of the legal pitfalls
Defamation: This country has tough libel laws and from the earliest Web 1.0 bulletin boards posters have got into difficulty with defamatory comments - as have the online services that carry them.
Offensive Messages: There are a range of laws from the Protection from Harassment Act to specific restrictions in the Telecommunications Act that can be invoked.
Incitement: There have been high profile cases relating to terrorism but any encouragement of others to commit unlawful acts can result in prosecution.
Intellectual property: There is a copy and paste culture online, but using other people's material (whether it's an article, photograph, logo or even another blog posting) can cause problems.
Linking: Bloggers need to think about what is on their own site, but also keep an eye on the links they provide to other pages e.g. to offensive or illegal material.
Reporting: The law of contempt and other statutory reporting restrictions carry strict penalties if breached.
Corporate blogging: The legal pitfalls can be even more pronounced in the case of corporate blogs where additional commercial concerns will apply.