Web 2.0 has made our lives more public and interconnected than ever before. In some ways this is a good thing; this blog allows me to disseminate my opinions and concerns like nothing else, using Twitter once landed me in a heated exchange with NBA star Andrew Bogut (I made fun of his favourite NRL team), and Facebook allows me to connect and interact with friends and family I might never have, to extents I might never have. But with this openness comes some danger. By now we all have heard of people being fired for writing insulting things on Facebook, going to jail for posting things on blogs or in comment sections, and been fined and gone to court over things they have tweeted. It was an interest in these developments that got me reading Professor Mark Pearson’s amazing blog, Journlaw. Professor Pearson writes a lot about freedom of expression, press freedom, and the uses and abuses of social media in Australia and around the world. His book “Blogging & Tweeting Without Getting Sued: A Global Guide to the Law for Anyone Writing Online” caught my eye because I wanted more detail about exactly what my rights and responsibilities were in this more open world. On this score it definitely does not disappoint.
When I told one of my friends I was reading a book about how not to get sued when tweeting or blogging, her first reaction was striking; “It’s simple. Don’t blog or tweet”. But that is not adequate. I am a citizen and resident of a country that purports to protect freedom of expression (read: “implied right”). Hence, I should be free to express myself. I just need to know the boundaries. This is where Pearson’s book comes in. The introduction claims it has the “modest aim” of offering; “…the serious blogger and social media user an introduction to the main areas of law you might encounter in your writing.” I would counter that it is quite a considerable goal, and Pearson has taken a real whack at it. This is perfectly illustrated by the copious amount of highlighting I did, and the mountain of notes I am left with. Pearson covers the legal risks of global “publishing”, the pitfalls and defenses of libel and defamation, the danger of covering court proceedings and ongoing events, and the key differences between private and public domain, and opinion and bigotry (etc.). Not bad in a 180-odd pages.
I am not going to recount all that I have learned from this book. After reading it, I am pretty sure that would be illegal anyway. But just to prove that I did read it, I will share some of the things that really jumped out at me. For starters, and the first thing that really gave me nightmares, was that despite my blog being hosted on a server in the United States, and despite my being currently located in Australia, legally I am not “publishing” exclusively from these locations. As my Grandfather reads this post from his lair in Sri Lanka, my Tante Angelika reads this post from wherever the hell she is right now, and whoever else accesses this post from wherever they are, I will legally have “published” this post in all of those jurisdictions. And, therefore, I will be subject to the laws of all of those jurisdictions. If, say, Neverland has prohibitions on the overuse of quotation marks and Tinker Bell decides to read some of my book reviews, I am quite screwed (I am, of course, referring to the character and location found in the J. M. Barrie books and plays – which are now in the public domain- and not to the intellectual property of a major corporation).
The second thing that really struck me was the implications of forwarding or retweeting. Apparently forwarding or retweeting counts as a fresh “publication,” and under your own name to boot. Therefore, when you retweet or forward something you now share in any malfeasance on the part of the original author. This, I think, explains why so many Twitter users add “retweet does not imply endorsement” on their profile pages, although I am really starting to doubt the legal defence offered by such a proclamation. To round it off, the third thing that startled me was how short the “long arm of the law” really is. While there do seem to be some cases of transnational legal proceedings, the international legal system does not seem to have caught up with a world where I can publish from one jurisdiction but have a readership concentrated in another. For example, my Grandpa cannot automatically expect the Sri Lankan legal system to reach me in Australia for my earlier characterization of his (obviously beautiful) house as a “lair.” He would probably have to take me to court in my absence and hope that I will be punished the next time I step foot in Sri Lanka (I am still waiting for my plane tickets by the way).
All in all, this is a must read for anyone active on social media and who hasn’t studied law. I have given just three examples of what I have learned from this book, but there is a lot more. Just the chapter on defamation and libel is worth the cost of the entire book, especially for people like me who are prone to being flippant on social media. Furthermore, and unlike other self-help/guide books I have read, Pearson offers loads of examples from all over the world that serve to ground the information in reality, and rounds out each chapter with dot points of the ground cover. I will say it again, this book is very much recommended, and so is his blog.
Author: Mark Pearson
Pages: 180 (Paperback)
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Josh’s Rating: 4/5
Amazon Link: Blogging & Tweeting Without Getting Sued