Thursday, May 25, 2006

End of Pinoy bloggers' age of innocence?

Oh how bloggers love their blogs! It’s no brainer why: it’s the only kind of “media” where the writer is also the editor, the cost of “publishing” is nil, where one’s chip on the shoulder is a virtue, and where the writer could pour out venom as much as his or her sense of decency—or lack or it—would allow. In the blogosphere, the Queensberry rule is off as bloggers believe laws on libel and defamation don’t apply to their spontaneous and free-spirit world.

Or so they thought.

But increasingly, lots of bloggers are getting lawsuits and penalized in the United States and the UK for calling people “lard brain” or “sex offender” or “Nazi.” Recently, members of the Yuchengo group of companies filed a libel charge against a group of plan holders, raising fears that the age of innocence for Filipino bloggers has ended.

Is freedom of expression by ordinary citizens in its barest, rawest form made possible by new technology now under threat? Are we seeing the end of the blog as we know it?

According to legal experts say that in the Philippines libel and defamation suits against bloggers are still a long shot. The statute books on libel and defamation were done when long ago when blogging was unheard of. Lawyer Jose Bernas (Bernas Law Office) says the law usually plays catch up to technology so bloggers are still safe. It takes a lot more for the blogger doing his thing beside the water dispenser to get the calaboose—at least for now.

More than just the dirty words
“Libel is not committed simply because a derogatory statement is made,” says Bernas. “There are other elements to be ascertained. One of them is publication or circulation. It is not clear that blogs meet the current definition of publication since actually blogs are static and readers ‘visit’ the blogs website instead of blogs circulating or publishing their journals. Technically therefore, it will be an effort to prove publication.”

For libel to succeed, Bernas say, the plaintiff or the accuser has to prove malice, or the desire to cause pain, injury, or distress to an offended party. He said that statements made to a private audience, however, are qualified privilege and are not considered public circulation.

“So the intended audience of the blogger is also to be evaluated,” said Bernas. “If the statement was made only for the association, it may be protected by privilege and may not be considered libelous.”

Are blogs private or public means of communication? This is a dilemma because blogs emerged in a specific cultural context where the private and the public spheres are getting blurred because of technological change.

At the surface, it looks public because anybody who knows the blogs’ URL (uniform resource locator) could access, read, and post comments in them. Quoting Clay Calvert, author of Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy and Peering in Modern Culture, Caroline Miller of the University of North Carolina State University say that blogs serve four basic purposes including self clarification (who am I?), self validation (how do my views fit within society’s sets of values?), relationship development (building an online community), and social control (influencing other people’s views through the blogger’s revelations). The first two purposes necessary reflect blogs as private activity while the last two portray blogs as intended for public audience.

“Blogs are part of World Wide Web, the most accessible protocol of the Internet which is also called the new media,” says Danilo Arao, assistant professor of University of the Philippines’ Department of Journalism. “The World Wide Web by itself is acknowledged to have websites that are publicly accessible. These are channels used for ‘mass communication’ due to their wide reach and anonymous audiences. Blogs are part of publicly accessible websites and as channels for mass communication so they can be termed ‘mass media.’ For as along as the content of blogs are publicly available, they are classified as mass media.”

Not established
Bernas, however, thinks otherwise. The rules on mass media, he said, are evolving and have not been established. Blogs, he said, is neither part of electronic media because it doesn’t use the air waves which are a public resource. It’s not a newspaper either because it doesn’t circulate like one.

“I would not consider it mass media at this time because the degree of deliberateness or intent possessed by the blogger, and the blogger’s ability to carry out the circulation himself does not approximate those that you see in mass media,” he said. “The blogger simply allows his site to be visited while the producer of mass media makes an effort to bring to the ‘masses’ his content.”

In his paper entitled Libel in the Blogosphere: Some Preliminary Thoughts, Glenn Harland Reynolds, professor of law at the University of Tennessee, and blogger behind the says that bloggers usually are not likely to put defamatory content on their own blogs but rather their readers through comments, and emails. Under American law, bloggers are immune from liability for these contents as they are protected by Article 230 of the Communications Decency Act. In the Philippines, there is no equivalent statute but Bernas says bloggers’ protection lies in the question whether or not the blogger is a “publisher.”

“The heart of that issue has to do whether the communications are ‘private’ in the sense that these are not circulated to the masses like mass media,” stresses Bernas. “If these are private, and are not ‘circulated’ to third parties, it will be difficult to prosecute a case of libel as defined presently. The reality is that laws always play catch up to technology.”

Freedom incomplete
So does it mean that bloggers has the completed freedom from lawsuits? Does it mean that they could just malign anybody they fancy to attack? Not really. Bernas said offended parties could always resort to civil action.

“A civil action need not measure up to the strict definitions of criminal libel,” said Bernas. “If you can prove actual damage to your reputation that can be quantified then you can sue for damages. However our courts do not usually award large amounts for damages. That would depend on the reputation of the complainant to begin with and whether that reputation was actually damaged.”

He adds that in other countries, damages need not be proved when certain defamatory statements like attacks on chastity, professional work or reputation are uttered. “The court can award nominal damages because it is assumed that such damage was suffered.”

That’s what exactly is happening in West lately. In January this year, the court in Forsyth country (US) ordered David Milum, an internet muckraker and political activist, to pay lawyer Rafe Banks $50,000 for accusing him of “delivering bribes for drug dealers” to a judge. In March (2006), the court in the United Kingdom slapped a Yahoo user £17,200 fine for calling a politician “lard brain” and “Nazi.” In the US, there is currently a growing list of lawsuits against bloggers for various charges ranging from publication of trade secrets to a fraudulent acquisition of a domain.

In general, Reynolds says that it’s unlikely that bloggers are going to be swamped with lawsuits because of certain factors, one of them the ease with which to correct factual errors. “When errors of fact are pointed out, most bloggers correct them immediately and generally do so with the same degree of prominence as the original error,” he said. “This practice makes libel suits less likely, and would arguably serve as evidence of absence of malice.”

“The ideal defendant, from a libel plaintiff’s standpoint, would be a rich blogger who has done significant original factual reporting as opposed to merely posting opinion or links to and quotes from other sites,” he said in his paper. “Such individuals are quite rare, at present. Most bloggers focus on opinion and most bloggers are not wealthy. This may change, however, as the blogosphere matures.”

Blogs evolving
And maturing fast they are. Five years ago, blogs are purely diaries of individuals who write about their angst, pets, failed relationships, and their rose gardens. These days blogs, social networking platforms, and websites are fast taking on business models, carrying advertisements and syndicated posts to make money. Global blogging networks have also emerged, carrying blogs on specific gadgets and technologies written by writers all over the world, mimicking how news wires work. Because of these recent trends in blogging, Justin Levine, a lawyer and blogger who writes for a law blog expects a “legal superstorm against bloggers” as the social impact of blogging rises.

“It won’t just be libel (though that will certainly be a strong weapon in the anti-blogging arsenal), it will also be the recent convergence of copyright, trademark, publicity rights, and trade secret claims that have converged in recent years to make free speech an ephemeral notion,” Levin said.

The libel case filed by the Yuchengco group against the plan of Pacific Plans who are not media practitioners therefore is the first in the Philippines. (The first one was filed by a certain Jonathan Tiongco against the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism). Whatever the outcome of the legal action against that group of bloggers would set a precedent in Philippine jurisprudence.

But how would mainstream media react to this possible ‘super storm’ of lawsuits against bloggers would be interesting. Blogging, because of the absence of editorial control and the gravitas of organized media, is still considered “low-trust culture.” Some professional journalists, especially those who are not into it, see blogging as dangerous as it grants ordinary citizens without formal journalistic training with more or the same power to influence public opinion. There are views that blogging should eventually have certain professional standards and code of ethics to follow.

Arao, however, dispute this view stressing that the practice of the media profession, and blogging should never be legislated.

“Theoretically, bloggers should maintain the same discipline and ethical standards as journalists from the so-called traditional forms of mass media,” said Arao. “However, not all bloggers are journalists, as in the case of those who mainly write about fluff and existential angst. I can even say that not all bloggers are good writers. I think self-regulation is the key.”

“I don’t think you can apply the same standards because the infrastructures are different, say Bernas. “Additionally, it will not be cost effective to maintain the same standards. Again, one must not forget that people still think that the essence of the internet is its unregulated state. No law can change what people think overnight so until people view the Internet differently and begin to think that it should be regulated, no law in that regard will be passed or, if passed, can be enforced.”


Anonymous said...

hi sir! we graduated last may 27, at shempre ayoko mag-manila times. hahahha...=)

Deany Bocobo said...

No blog is an island!

Unknown said...

Hi Without Borders,

Just dropped in to say hello!

Thanks for a comprehensive write up on "bloggers".

Very useful indeed.

Btw, I don't know but I'd always thought you were US-based...

Dave Llorito said...

im based here in the philippines.

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