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Personal Computing — Flaming May Get You in a Hot Spot

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Rage, rage, rage! If you spend any amount of time at all in online discussion groups, particularly in unmoderated Usenet newsgroups, you’ve undoubtedly seen your share of explosive arguments.
“Flamewars” are one of the most pervasive facts of life in online forums. Separated by space and often by time as well, people online are more likely than in person to let their hair down and lose all traces of civility.
The rule of thumb seems to be: If you can’t say something nice about someone, say it in Usenet.
You may have participated in a flamewar or two yourself, or been tempted to do so. What’s the harm?
The reality is that you can indeed be hurt by firing off an ill-conceived insult, in both your personal life and your worklife. Even though the chances are remote of any of the following outcomes occurring, there’s still some risk here, a risk you should weigh when conducting yourself online.

You Could Be Threatened with a Lawsuit

Sure, such a suit will likely never make it to court. “Libel claims are notoriously difficult and expensive to prove,” says Blake A. Bell, a New York City attorney who’s writing a book on “cyberlaw.”
But this doesn’t stop the threats. And if the person threatening to sue hires a lawyer, you may have to do the same, which could turn into an expensive proposition.
Often what happens is that a lawyer will send a letter demanding a retraction in behalf of a client who feels that he or she has been libeled. People receiving these letters are sometimes “scared into an apology,” says Frederic M. Wilf, a Berwin, Pennsylvania attorney active in online discussions.
It helps to know the law here. The First Amendment grants us a lot of latitude in speaking out freely, online or off. It protects us when we offer our opinions or even lambaste others.
What it doesn’t sanction, in broad terms, is your stating as a fact something that’s untrue when it damages another person’s reputation. You can call somebody a “jerk” with relative impunity, but you can’t say-unless it’s true-that he beats his wife.
One key issue is damage to reputation-defamation. “The classic test is whether the statement holds a person up to hatred, ridicule, or contempt,” says Gerry Elman, an intellectual property lawyer from Media, Pennsylvania, who’s active in the area of online communications. Another test is whether the statement deters other people from associating or dealing with the person.
If you have people working for you, you need to be careful about what they say online when they’re connected through your company’s equipment. The company could find itself in a legal quagmire along with the person who made the statement, says Richard Raysman, a New York City attorney who specializes in information technology.

Your Words Might Be Read by Unanticipated Eyes

You have no way of knowing who is participating in most online discussions. If you’re acting like Attila the Hun, would you want your boss, your wife, or your kids to see this?
Even words that spew out in the heat of the moment in an online forum can linger, for many years. Several Internet services, including Deja News (http://www.dejanews.com), let you search for all of the public comments that a person has made in Usenet newsgroups.
There’s nothing stopping a human resources person you’ve just interviewed with from doing such a search using your name.

You Could Be Harassed

You may think you’re shielded sitting there behind your monitor and keyboard, but you’re not invisible. People have been harassed through e-mail as a result of public postings they’ve made. Then there’s the possibility of getting hit with an e-mail “bomb”-hundreds or thousands of e-mail messages sent automatically, preventing you from using your e-mail account.
Through Internet white page and mapping services, someone may also be able to find your phone number, your home address, and even directions to your house.

Say What You Think, but Think before You Say It

Don’t let the possibility of these consequences prevent you from speaking out about important public issues or standing your ground when your views are challenged. The Internet has been called the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed. As such, it offers a bright hope for democracy and liberty around the world.Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk about the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@voicenet.com or http://www.voicenet.com/~reidgold.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor February, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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