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Social Media and Online Issues - Defamation and Privacy

20 July 2015

Online publishing via social media is now instant, free and easily accessible. Anyone can publish content without much in the way of control or the input of an in-house legal team to veto high risk content. Such freedom and accessibility raises issues for online publishers who face the possibility of claims of defamation and breach of privacy.

Overview

By way of context and to highlight the potential of online publication, in 2012 34.4% of the world’s 7 billion plus population was online in some respect. In the United Kingdom 53% of the population have a Facebook account which equates to 33 million Facebook accounts in the UK alone. In comparison, there are only 5.5 million print readers of The Times in the UK. It seems that increasingly more of us want to share our thoughts and voice our opinions demonstrated by the 1 billion tweets posted each week on Twitter.

In theory the legal risks that affect online publishers are similar to the risks facing offline publishers, for example issues around privacy, breach of confidence, defamation and harassment. However, in practice the risks for online publishers are actually relatively modest and claims against online publishers appear rarer and the awards against them lower than for their counterparts in print publishing.

In 2010 there were only 7 libel actions [brought in the UK] rising to just 14 in 2011 before decreasing again by 15% in 2012. There are a number of reasons for these low numbers. One factor is the increased scrutiny of journalists as a result of highly publicised events such as the phone hacking scandal and the resulting Leveson Inquiry. Wider use of the “Reynolds” defence (providing qualified privilege to the media as long as they have acted responsibly), and increased privacy actions by celebrities, have played their part in keeping libel actions to a minimum. The approach of the courts must also be mentioned because the UK courts appear to have adopted a policy of working towards a US-style immunity for online publications.

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