Libel and censorship on t’Internet – 190 countries control your words
LIBEL and censorship on the internet is big news. This new move by Twitter tells us something that most people don’t realise about this lovely playground that is the internet:
Twitter has refined its technology so it can censor messages on a country-by-country basis.
The additional flexibility announced on Thursday is likely to raise fears that Twitter’s commitment to free speech may be weakening as the short-messaging company expands into new countries in an attempt to broaden its audience and make more money.
But Twitter sees the censorship tool as a way to ensure individual messages, or tweets, remain available to as many people as possible while it navigates a gauntlet of different laws around the world.
Before, when Twitter erased a tweet it disappeared throughout the world. Now, a tweet containing content breaking a law in one country can be taken down there and still be seen elsewhere.
I’ve been saying this for years but all too many still don’t believe me. When you post something on the internet you are not liable for the libel and censorship laws of where you posted it. You are liable for the libel and censorship laws in the countries where it is read.
The general rule is that downloading into a browser is publication: before you downloaded the page a copy did not exist in that legal jurisdiction. After you did it did, so you, by downloading, have published it.
This doesn’t apply just to libel and censorship either. Photos of kiddie fiddling for example: looking at it is publication, because while you’re looking at it there are two copies, one on the server and one on your machine. Thus you are producing child porno, something which carries a much heavier sentence.
And yes this does apply to libel: Dow Jones (owners of the Wall Street Journal) paid libel damages in Australia for a piece published in New York and read by perhaps 20 people in Oz. Yahoo and e–Bay have had huge fights in France and Germany about people offering Nazi memorabilia for sale in the US or UK (legal in US and UK and verboeten in France and Germany). They’ve had to ensure that such pages cannot be seen in those countries.
A particularly vile holocaust denier, writing in Oz, on a server in Oz, the Germans tried to have him extradited from the UK when he visited: because the pages could be (and were) read in Germany then they claimed this was a breach of the German laws against holocaust denial.
This internet, this World Wide Web thing: we’re not subject to the laws in the place we write, where we have our servers. We’re subject to the laws of where our readers are. Yup, all 190 odd UN members, all 250 odd various legal jurisdictions.