The Power of the Internet

Lawyers these days are having a field day over the use and misuse of the internet. I do a lot of family law cases. It never ceases to stagger me just how much incriminating information people are prepared to post about themselves on such sites as Facebook. Many have been the occasions when I file in Court papers evidence of who the new boyfriend or girlfriend is, with photos to accompany, where children have been on holiday and what derogatory comments have been made by one separated partner against the other.

Bizarrely, people seem to think that what they have posted on the internet is somehow invisible to Courts of law. The litigation surrounding tweets, e-mails and other postings about the identity of a Tory peer wrongly alleged to have been involved in paedophile activity is a case in point. In November 2012 Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, used her Twitter account to hint the name of this peer. He took legal action against her and others. The libel law suit was for £50,000 and she defended it. On 24 May 2013 the High Court found her tweet to be libellous, and she agreed to pay damages.

In that same month, November 2012, she further tweeted the name of a schoolgirl involved in an abduction case. This was in the face of a Court order protecting the girl’s identity. Two days later her account was deleted for what was described as “legal gaffes”. But it seems she returned to further tweeting a week or so later. Why? You may recall she entered the Big Brother House in the 2011 edition of Celebrity Big Brother. She was the first to be evicted.

Perhaps fame or notoriety, perhaps the need to be recognised as a person worth listening to, is among the impulses which drive such people to promote their own ideas online. Many websites now invite comments from the public on their performance for goods delivered or services rendered. They invite reviews of books read and of goods purchased. On any view, there is surely great potential for mischief.

Amazon is perhaps the biggest website inviting reviews on, for example, books written. It has been involved in controversy in the past in deleting reviews by authors of their fellow writers’ books, or positive reviews of their own books but using pseudonyms to hide their own identify. To crack down on this perceived abuse, Amazon updated its guidelines. These state that “statements by or on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product (including reviews by publishers, manufacturers or third party merchants selling the product)” are not allowed.

The online retailer Klear Gear has just recently been ordered by the Court to pay £180,000 to a couple. They posted a bad review about the company for goods purchased but never delivered. The company tried to levy a fine of $3,500 on them for breach of a so-called “non-disparagement clause”. This was backed up by the company seeking to enforce payment through a debt collection company. This in turn adversely affected the couple’s credit rating. And the value of the goods purchased? £12.50.

If you live by the sword, you may die by the sword. The internet is now such a powerful tool that it easily breaches national borders and laws. Once it is out, it is like the genie out of the bottle – almost impossible to put back in again. The internet is a truly wonderful resource. But we must never let it be our master. If we treat it with respect – in other words we treat our fellow man with courtesy and respect, then we won’t go far wrong. But if we use it as a sword to swipe at whomever we please, it will fight back, as Sally Burcow and Klear Gear have found to their cost.

John Busby
Busbys Solicitors
Bude & Holsworthy


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