Thursday, January 10, 2013

Don't drive online debate underground

Jan 10, 2013

WHILE I cannot presume to judge whether or not blogger Alex Au's article or the comments it attracted were defamatory, [Well, why don't you read them and decide?] I am concerned that serving a letter of demand on him may not be entirely in the public interest ("PM asks blogger to remove 'defamatory post'"; last Saturday).

[So... public interest is better served by allowing baseless accusations about the integrity and intent of publicly elected officials to stand unchallenged? How so?]

First, the threat of legal action may drive online debate into forums that are more obscure and harder to track.

The allegations in question this time were similar in tone and substance to hundreds of comments posted every day on some online forums.

Yet it was Mr Au's blog that attracted the threat of legal action.

It is logical to serve lawyers' letters preferentially on the most accessible websites, as defamatory statements posted on them have the greatest impact.

However, this tends to embolden netizens on underground forums, while punishing those who are more out in the open, thus "radicalising" online discourse.

["Radicalising online discourse"... as compared to the currently restrained, matured, and reasonable discourse you find online?!?! The simple fact of the matter is that the lawyers will go after those who can be identified. Those that hide behind aliases, pseudonyms, and masked IP addresses... well, suggest an easy way to track them down and the lawyers will get to them. So no. Your argument that this approach will radicalise online discourse is laughably disingenuous. Yes, when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.]

Second, recent cases of websites being served lawyers' letters for allegedly defamatory statements have set a precedent.

Such cases have been resolved with an apology and the removal of the offending material; they have not gone to court.

However, if in the future, someone should serve a letter of demand for an allegation that actually merits further investigation, but the case is similarly resolved through an apology and deletion, this would not be good for transparency and accountability.

[GREAT! So you're arguing that they should take the slanderers and libelers to court! You seem to mistake restrain on the part of those slandered with stupidity. Rest assured that if a slander or libel is particularly malicious and the lawyers have ground to believe that they are able to make a case that the slander or libel was malicious, deliberate and calculated to do irrevocable damage to their client's reputation that a simple apology and retraction is unable to rectify, they will pursue further action. As it is, there is some hint that the lawyers for Tan Chuan Jin may take further action against Vincent Wijeysingha because his slander/libel was deliberately misleading and he should have known better, as opposed to the wildly speculative posts of Alex Au.]

We all appreciate that our leaders' reputations should be defended. [You're just saying that!] However, I fear that lawyers' letters may serve more to sour the online mood. [Have you tasted the online mood? It's already sour. And getting sourer with libel.]

In the long run, this atmosphere might well be deleterious to public trust.

Perhaps a letter of demand should be seen more as a nuclear option, when open and responsible debate has failed.

Rayner Teo

["Open and responsible debate"... wow. What double standards! So slanderers and libelers can make totally irresponsible, unsubstantiated statements, but those slandered and defamed have to resort to open and responsible debate? Responsible debate begets responsible debate. Scurrilous speculation,  baseless accusations, and irresponsible statements are NOT the foundation or starting point of responsible debate. Moreover, it is IMPOSSIBLE to defend oneself against false accusation, which is why we have the principle of "innocent until proven guilty".

If anyone is accused of being corrupt (or any other moral or legal misdemeanor), it is the onus of the accuser to prove his accusation at least on a prima facie basis, not the onus of the accused to prove that he is NOT corrupt (or whatever he is accused of).

In any case, the law on defamation/slander/libel stands in our statutes/law books. Work within those boundaries. Or would you argue that perhaps we should try anger management classes for murderers first and only when that has failed, should we charge them with murder?]

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