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Blogging and the Law

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One of the more curious of
the Internet’s recent brainchildren is the blog. These public online Web logs,
or diaries, have gotten a lot of attention lately for letting ordinary people
air their views about personal, even private, matters to anyone interested.

 

There’s a fair amount of
self-absorption in the blogging movement, despite the fact that many blogs
include commentary about the outside worlds of politics and popular culture.
And political organizations and commercial enterprises have lately made efforts
to co-opt blogging to promote their causes and profits.

 

Still, authentic blogs can provide
a fascinating view inside other people’s minds, letting you see what they’re
thinking. The same is true for business blogs, those created by companies as a
new-media way of letting interested publics in on company activities and plans.

 

Letting loose, however, is not
without its risks, and these are not limited to inadvertently airing your dirty
laundry. Sometimes speaking freely, and publicly, about other people or
organizations can get you threatened with a lawsuit if you criticize them or
reveal information they don’t want revealed, First Amendment or no First
Amendment. Other times, it can get you fired from your job.

 

To help bloggers better acquaint
themselves with the legalities, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has just
released its free “Legal Guide for Bloggers,” accessible at its Web site (<span
class=95StoneSerifIt>www.eff.org/bloggers/lg
).
“We want to help bloggers understand the laws that affect them so they can
better protect and defend their rights,” said Kurt Opsahl, the EFF staff
attorney who coordinated the project, in a phone interview.

 

EFF, which is celebrating its
15-year anniversary, is one of the most prominent voices on the Internet
promoting the rights of individuals who use it. Based in San Francisco, EFF
receives its funding primarily from members, who pay as dues whatever they feel
appropriate. In exchange, they receive a “warm and fuzzy feeling from defending
digital freedom,” said Opsahl. Higher levels of membership get you such
tsatskes as a T-shirt or hat. EFF is also supported by foundation grants.

 

Among other things, EFF publishes
its free biweekly email newsletter, <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>EFFector
, to keep readers informed of
recent cases and developments involving the Internet and such issues as free
speech, libel, privacy, freedom of information, copyright, and fair use. These
are the same issues that its new legal guide covers with regard to blogging.

 

Steps Toward Safer
Blogging

 

I’d nominate the following as the
best pieces of advice the guide offers:

 

·      You may quote short bits of what
someone else has written, particularly if you’re providing commentary, without
violating the person’s copyright.

·      You may report facts or ideas of
others (although it’s considered plagiarism to couch them as your own).

·      You may use the trademarked name
of a company (without the trademark symbol) unless you’re using it as the name
of your own competing product or service or implying that the trademark holder
endorses your content.

·      In criticizing another party,
truth is an absolute defense against libel, but truth can be expensive to prove
legally.

·      You can’t just stick an “In my
opinion” in front of a verifiable statement for it to become opinion and
protected against a libel charge.

·      If you don’t name a person you’re
criticizing but the person is still identifiable through the context of what
you say, you can still be liable for libel.

·      If you make up something about a
company, such as pretending you found a severed finger in the company’s chili,
you can be liable for trade libel.

·      You may be liable for invasion of
privacy if you publish private facts about another person if they’re offensive
and not a matter of public concern.

·      If you get an unjustified
cease-and-desist letter or email message, consider exposing the party trying to
squash your freedom of expression at the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>(www.chillingeffects.org)
.

·      If you criticize your boss or
company in your personal blog, even if you do so during off-hours using your
own computer and Internet service provider, you could be fired, legally, if
you’re an “at will” employee.

 

Opsahl emphasized that the guide
isn’t a substitute for legal counsel. If you’re sued or threatened with a lawsuit,
or if you feel you need a lawyer for any other purpose related to blogging, the
EFF can help you find one who has the relevant expertise. If the EFF deems that
yours is a case that has the potential of changing the law, it may take it on a
pro bono basis.

 

Reid Goldsborough is a
syndicated columnist and author of the book <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway
.
He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or members.home.net/reidgold.

 

 

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