Speaking to the world: defamation on the Internet
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AbstractThe growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web has been amply chronicled over the last few years. Many Canadians have their own personal modem and account for electronic transmission. If not, they have access to one in the public domain of libraries and other community resources. Getting on-line will soon be as commonplace and easy as getting a dial tone. The law is characteristically in a catch-up mode to leaps in social and technological change. There is no law which has been enacted to regulate the Internet. This is due largely to a failure on the part of legislators to truly understand this electronic phenomenon and devise how, if at all, they can control it in the public interest. Telecommunications have always been troublesome matters for regulators since radio waves are impossible to contain. At the most, regulators concentrate on licensing operators such as television stations which are large capital plants. These businesses could not escape detection by the licensing authorities, which is the practical basis for control. The Internet, on the other hand, is an entirely different medium. With a density of verbal, auditory, and graphic images being instantly transmitted and received among hundreds of millions of people, no one sovereign state can monitor, much less regulate, the content on the Internet. It is often said that this is the first great democratization of speech since the printing press. Now everyone can be a publisher to the world. This is not to say that there have not been, and will not continue to be, legislative efforts to regulate Internet communications. The most recent and well-known example is the United States government's legislation to outlaw pornographic images. Recently, that statute has been ruled unconstitutional as against the freedom of speech. Its critics argue that it is too broad. There are many other concerns, including extraterritoriality and enforcement. How does one penalize someone in a far off country who has posted offensive content? Another sphere of law which is thought to embrace Internet communications in the same way as other communications is defamation. There is nothing about electronic transmission which would exempt one from the laws of defamation. In fact, the opposite is true. While electronic transmission is more ephemeral, it also has considerably greater reach than magazines and newspapers. On March 31, 1994, the first defamation judgment from Internet communication was handed down by the courts.
Article deposited after permission was granted by the editor of LawNow magazine, 06/28/2010.