Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Freedom Of The Net In Trouble Again

See if you think this is bizarre:

A native of Ghana, who later moved to Kenya, was accused of sexual and financial improprieties while working for the United Nations in West Africa. The charges were reported in the Washington Post, which maintains a website, and therefore stories concerning his case are available on the internet. Now, the former UN official, who has moved to Canada, is suing the Washington Post for libel, and a Toronto court has claimed it has jurisdiction to hear the case, because Ontario residents have access to the Post's story via the net.

According to an article on the CBC website,
The 46-year-old man's suit said the newspaper was hurting his reputation in his new home because Ontario residents could read the stories in the Post's web-based archives.
Does this sound reasonable to you, or does it sound like spin? Before you answer, consider this:
The Post has seven paid online subscribers in the province and only one person has ever paid to see the story on the archives, the newspaper says.
This is just my perspective, of course, but I don't see how a newspaper article could significantly damage anyone's reputation if only one person in the entire province of Ontario has ever seen it. But
An Ontario judge ruled last year that the province's court system had jurisdiction to hear the case
and now
CNN, the New York Times, Google, Yahoo, the London Times, the CBC and dozens of other publishers and broadcasters are challenging the judge's decision.

They warn that freedom of expression and the public interest might suffer if people could shop for a country with favourable libel laws anywhere in the world and file suit there to avenge themselves over stories they don't like.
If this case goes ahead, even if no damages are awarded, the proceeding in itself would set what some see as a dangerous precedent.
If Bangoura's lawsuit is allowed to proceed, websites would be reluctant to post any controversial story for fear of being forced out of business by a large libel settlement, media lawyers said.
Left out of the CBC's story, but clearly implied, is the notion that the "large libel settlement" could be handed down by a court which has no jurisdiction over the publisher of the story, no connection with any of the people mentioned in it, and no relevance to the issue at all, except for the fact that one or more people living within the area served by the court could possibly see said story on said internet.

The world-wide web in a shrinking global village brings many surprising results. And the result here could provide one of the most surprising, and most damaging, of them all.

What will happen? I don't know. I can only hope that sane heads will prevail. In my view, freedom of the press is in enough trouble already. But, as always, we shall see what we shall see. Stay tuned.