by Piet Coetzer

Lack of legal frameworks for social media challenged

New precedents to be set by Lord McAlpine's libel charges on twitter users

Twitter logo.JPG

While legal codes across the globe have battled to keep pace with the explosion in the electronic social networks and platforms over recent years, cyber space has become a bit of the ‘Wild West’. Now, some high profile defamation lawsuits in the United Kingdom may force some legal precedents to be set. 

A prominent British peer, Lord McAlpine, recently announced his intensions to file a number of unprecedented series of libel actions against a number of prominent members of British high society to end what he called ‘trial by twitter’.His actions came after he was wrongly linked to child abuse allegations in messages on twitter. 

The former Conservative Party treasurer claimed that he had been terrified when he became ‘a figure of public hatred’ because of people naming him as the person referred to in reports on the BBCs Newsnight programme, which claimed that a senior Tory member was a paedophile.  

Since the programme, broadcast on November 2 this year, the BBC acknowledged it made a mistake and agreed to pay Lord McAlpine £185,000 in damages plus costs.

Amongst the 12 people McAlpine will target with libel actions is Sally Bercow, wife of the speaker of the House of Commons, who was one of the people linking him to the BBC report in messages on twitter.

Lawyers engaged by McAlpine acquired the help of network specialists to collate the offending twitter messages, including those that have been deleted, as well as re-tweets, in which one user republished a message posted by someone else.  

If successful with his actions, McAlpine is likely to have a number of legal precedents in an area in which codified law has failed to keep up with the rapid development of technology. For one, it could strip social networks like twitter, Linkedin, Facebook and others of their closed club-like status to date. 

They would become subject to the same rules and laws with regard to defamation and libel that apply to formal media channels and outlets like newspapers, radio stations, websites and the like. And it would not only change things for the individuals involved in libelous messages. Under South Africa’s legal framework governing defamation it is, for instance, possible to not only sue the originator or writer of defamatory content but also the publisher and the distributor of such content.

Although probably the most high profile example of a growing problem area in the world of social media, the McAlpine case is not the only one. Earlier this year it was reported that the number of online defamation lawsuits (cyber libel) has more than doubled in the last year. This is not only directly related to the increase in online social networking but also the lack of clear legal frameworks.


Not just libel

The area of libel and defamation is not the only one suffering from a lack of clear legal frameworks in the terrain of social networking. There is a gray area on the subject of privacy with regard to social networks where debt collectors for example are increasingly using these networks and are crawling software to gather information on people. There are also instances where credit agencies use these networks to create profiles of potential lenders or credit seekers. 


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