For the wealthy and famous, suing people on the Internet is like the new Kabbalah, not just in terms of trendiness but also geographical focus. Britain is the hot destination if you want to take a blogger's house away because our cousins across the way have got the same draconian libel laws that did in Oscar Wilde. People don't like to read unpleasant things about themselves on the Internet (and where would the NYT Magazine be if they did?). But even where the targets of bloggy exposure or lampoon do have a legitimate grievance, must they head straight to the courts to settle it? Below, two recent libel cases involving the Internet, and one bonus intellectual property dispute involving a moppet and a Christian fantasist.
My Mood Is Litigious. Mathew Firsht was awarded 22,000 pounds after suing former school chum Grant Raphael, who had created a bogus Facebook profile of Firsht listing his location, activities and lying about his politics and sexual orientation as well as a profile of his company titled "Has Mathew Firsht lied to you?" The two men were at one point business partners, and according to the judge who presided over the civil case, Raphael was bitter and envious of Firsht's success. The BBC quotes media lawyer Jo Sanders: "Sat at home or school or in the office, it's easy to think of social networking sites as harmless fun, that it's like chatting with friends, and that things posted there are either a joke or just a mischievous way of causing embarrassment. This ruling puts an end to that."
Touchy Terrorists. David T at the popular British blog Harry's Place was threatened with a libel suit recently by Mohammad Sawalha, a man the BBC has identified as the mastermind behind "much of Hamas' political and military strategy." Sawalha heads a Hamas front organization known as the British Muslim Initiative and was gravely offended when David posted a translated Al Jazeera script of a speech Sawalha had given at an anti-Israel rally in Trafalgar Square. In the original version, Sawalha referred in Arabic to "Jewish evil." But then he must have realized that was no way to dupe multiculturalists in London, and asked an obliging Al Jazeera to alter its record and reprint the term "Jewish Lobby." (HP posted the Google cached page of the relevant Al Jazeera website, so there was really no arguing with its evidence).
Once Sawalha got lawyers involved, the blogosphere retaliated — I believe "blogburst" is the technical term — with a massive show of solidarity with Harry's Place. Again, this proved the so-called "Streisand effect": If you sue people on the Internet, you draw more attention to yourself than you would by keeping quiet. And after all, was it really going to do more harm to an agent of Hamas to be thought of as anti-Semitic?
(This wasn't the first time David T has had subpoenas sent to him for something he posted at HP. Then, as now, the would-be litigant's measures backfired.)
The Lawyer, the Book, and the WIPO. Libel isn't the only preserve for the web's pettifogging game wardens. Copyright is, too. An 11-year-old Scottish boy, Comrie Saville-Smith, was sued by the estate of C.S. Lewis after his father gave him the present of a Narnia-themed website — www.narnia.mobi — and guess who had jurisdiction? The U.N. Its World Intellectual Property Organisation, which grunge anarchists in Seattle would hurl rocks at if they took their lazy asses to Geneva, decided that the young Comrie might use the site for commercial purposes and recoup ad revenue on the Lewis brand just as Prince Caspian was hitting international theatres. The Saville-Smiths weren't fined any financial damages (save, I guess, the cost of counsel), but they did have to give up the URL.
The case became a wee cause celebre in Scotland, and you'll never guess which Manichean novel series was invoked to distinguish the big bad literary estate from the devoted but plagued innocent. Feel even sorrier for Comrie. His mom goes around talking like this: "We put up a spirited fight because we wanted to prove that you do not have to hand something over just because someone richer and more powerful tells you to do so."