Law & order reach ‘wild wild web’

(Straits Times) SINGAPORE, June 14 – More seeking legal recourse for online defamation Internet has potential to reach wide audience; netizens also think they have online anonymity.

A well-known information technology (IT) entrepreneur saw an Internet posting on an IT forum that made him see red. It alleged that he was a “failure”, that his “services were no good”, and that he “cheated people”.

The businessman went to a large law firm, which assigned a lawyer to track down the author of the post, who was anonymous.

Within a week, the cyber-sleuth had identified the person. A letter demanding that he withdraw his statement followed. The person deleted the comment immediately.

The “wild, wild Web” may be grist for all sorts of personal attacks, given the plethora of platforms like e-mail, forums, blogs and social networking sites like Facebook.

Lawyers with expertise in defamation and IT issues said more Singaporeans are seeking legal advice on online defamation.

In the past year, such inquiries have shot up by about 20 per cent. The complaints one lawyer received increased by five times.

Apart from anonymous attacks, there have also been online spats. One such case was between two well-known bloggers, although it did not go to court.

A court may rule that a remark is defamatory if it is untrue, malicious, or injures another’s reputation.

Lawyer Adrian Tan, a Drew and Napier director, said that as the Internet increasingly becomes a communication conduit, people may post comments that “cross the line” into defamatory territory.

Since many see the Internet as a credible source of information, it has the potential to reach a wide audience. Many netizens too have a false sense of security about their so-called online anonymity.

Rajesh Sreenivasan, a partner at Rajah and Tann’s iTec Practice Group, said: “Netizens need to know that the same legal rules apply offline as they do online.”

Under Singapore’s defamation laws, an apology will only go towards reducing damages that a defamed person can claim.

But while the IT entrepreneur was able to get the person who upset him to withdraw his online comments, others have been unable to track down the other party, even with legal advice.

Rajesh said social networking sites like Facebook are the latest arena for potential defamatory suits.

He said: “People sometimes want to have fun and be a bit irreverent, but there’s a fine line between being irreverent and being defamatory.”

There have been past online defamation cases that have gone to court. One notable case involved former Singapore lawyer Gopalan Nair, who was jailed three months for insulting High Court Justice Belinda Ang in a blog posting on May 29 last year.

In it, he accused her of “prostituting herself” to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew at a court hearing that she had presided over to assess damages in a defamation suit. The two leaders had won the suit against the Singapore Democratic Party, its chief Chee Soon Juan and his sister Siok Chin.

Nair, who represented himself, was charged under Section 228 of the Penal Code, which deals with intentional insults to a public servant in a judicial proceeding.

Lawyers said most cases are settled out of court as neither party wants public attention. The aggrieved party will usually demand that the defamatory statement be removed and an apology be issued.

Such cases will go to court only if a settlement cannot be reached.

But lawyers warn of pitfalls in trying to “hit back” at alleged defamers.

Rajesh said: “You should not write a nasty note back. It just makes matters worse and you’ll face the possibility of a defamation action against yourself.”

As for those who hide behind the cloak of anonymity on the Internet, lawyers said that the technology to track them down will only get better.

Lawyer Bryan Tan, a director at Keystone Law Corporation, added that with a court order, Internet service providers and forum owners or moderators are obliged to reveal the identities of those who post defaming remarks or material online.

“But there’s no guarantee that you can trace their real identities as they could have put Mickey Mouse as their real name,” said Tan.

On the positive side, lawyers say netizens are now more mature and are more aware of defamation laws.

Also, Rajesh said people might get used to this type of “free speech” online.

“Over time, there may be greater tolerance. People may get used to defamatory remarks but human egos will never subside,” he said. “If you make unjustified or unfair remarks, you’ll still have to be prepared to pay the price.”