Category Archives: privacy

Defamation and anonymous blogging

Has anyone else ever put comments up in online forums, or in response to newspaper stories or blog posts? If you’re reading this post, I suspect that you might have been tempted to do so. You know the drill then. You are required to enter your name in a box headed “Name”, and then you are required to enter an e-mail address. Usually, there is a disclaimer beside the box, stating “will not be published” or “for verification purposes only” or something of the sort. Perhaps you have used a psuedonym, feeling safe in the knowledge that no one will know who you are. Given a recent case in the UK, perhaps you need to mind what you say.

In Sheffield Wednesday Football Club Inc v Hargreaves [2007] EWHC 2375 (QB), a football club, Sheffield Wednesday, and members of its board of directors sued the owner and operator of a fan website, www.owlstalk.co.uk, for defamation. The plaintiffs sought to require the website to disclose the e-mail addresses of contributors to a fan chat forum whose contributions were said to be defamatory.

At the outset, taking off my lawyer’s wig and adopting a practical point of view, it seems to me that if one’s fans are already offside, then suing those who are critical of your management isn’t going to increase your popularity with the fan base… Just a thought.

In any case, the comments were made by some 11 anonymous contributors, all of whom were fans of Sheffield Wednesday. All of the comments were scathing about the way in which the plaintiff chairmen/directors and others had managed the club.

Richard Parkes QC said at the outset at [9]:

…in a case where the proposed order will result in the identification of website users who expected their identities to be kept hidden, the court must be careful not to make an order which unjustifiably invades the right of an individual to respect for his private life, especially when that individual is in the nature of things not before the court.

Ultimately, his Honour decided that the defendant should be required to divulge the details of only those contributors whose comments were of the most serious nature (at [17] – [18]):

It seems to me that some of the postings…border on the trivial, and I do not think that it would be right to make an order for the disclosure of the identities of users who have posted messages which are barely defamatory or little more than abusive or likely to be understood as jokes. That, it seems to me, would be disproportionate and unjustifiably intrusive. …

The postings which I regard as more serious are those which may reasonably be understood to allege greed, selfishness, untrustworthiness and dishonest behaviour on the part of the Claimants. In the case of those postings, the Claimants’ entitlement to take action to protect their right to reputation outweighs, in my judgment, the right of the authors to maintain their anonymity and their right to express themselves freely, and I take into account in this context the restrictions on the use of defamatory language which the rules of the Defendant’s bulletin board impose, restrictions which in the case of these postings appear to have been breached. I take into account also that the Defendant does not appear to have had any policy of confidentiality for the benefit of his users.

Having read the exerpts of the comments in the judgment itself, the comments in fact seemed pretty tame compared to some things I’ve read in the blogosphere. I could imagine the comments being made by disgruntled fans in the pub after the match, and indeed, I think this is very much the way in which the fans themselves saw it; except that they had put the comments in writing on a public forum, which gives the comments a very different status.

People often treat e-mail and online forum comments as if they are “verbal” rather than “written”. But what could just be a disgruntled whinge may come across as something altogether more serious when put in writing. I fell into this trap once myself with e-mail, and vowed never again to communicate problems via e-mail, as they lack “tone”, and may come over so much more harshly as a result. 

Furthermore, it’s easy to be nasty if you are just typing a comment and don’t have to look someone in the eye when you make it. I once dealt with a client who was pleasant if you saw him in person, but typed vicious and unreasonable e-mails asking you to crush the other side and give no mercy, even if the dispute was partly of his own making. My tactic was always to ring him back about the e-mail and get him to soften the instructions thereby. I’ve never found a “take-no-prisoners” approach to be effective. Softly, softly, catchee monkey…and go in for the killer punch if necessary at the end.

It’s even easier to be vicious if you are anonymous, because if you want to make up a sufficiently obscure psuedonym, even your own mother might not realise you made the comment, so you don’t have to take responsibility for it. Although I write under a psuedonym on this very blog, I always write as though I was writing under my own name. I’m sure it’s easy enough to work out my real identity if anyone really wanted to do so.

The lesson for us all is to be very careful with what we say. Would we be embarrassed to own up to it? Is what we are saying truthful? It seems that it was important in this case that (a) there was no confidentiality policy in place to protect the details of contributors and (b) there was a policy that abusive/defamatory comments should not be made. At the very least, those who run internet forums and the like will have to revise their confidentiality policies if they wish to protect the details of contributors.

Any comments, of course, will be treated STRICTLY CONFIDENTIALLY (just for the record, in case any judges out there are reading this blog).

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Filed under blogging, blogs, courts, defamation, e-mail, England, freedom of information, freedom of speech, Internet, law, media, privacy, soccer, technology, tort law

Facebook Freddi

I’ve recently become addicted to Facebook. It’s great. I’ve managed to get in touch with friends with whom I hadn’t spoken for almost 20 years, and to stay in better contact with others. Another friend of mine is less keen. “I’m really worried about the privacy issues”, she told me. Initially I wasn’t so concerned, but as I got more friends, I have reduced the personal information on my page.

Would I agree to be friends with Facebook Freddi, though? I’d like to think I’d be sensible enough to refuse his offer. Freddi Staur, a green frog, is an invention of internet security firm Sophos. Sophos sent out friend invitations on behalf of Freddi to 200 hundred people. 87 people accepted Freddi’s invite, although they didn’t know Freddi. Seems quite amazing. I guess it’s a reminder for people like me to be careful, not to be friends with just anyone, and not to include too many personal details on the site.

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Privacy Act? Extreme Irritation Act, more like it…

Right at the start of this blog I had a whinge about privacy laws. I’m going to have another one now. What’s the point of having a blog if you can’t have a vent on it?

Our energy accounts are both with the same company, and both in my husband’s name. I accidentally paid the money for the electricity account into the gas account (same company, slightly different BPAY number). Anyway, I got one of those scary red letters today telling us that our electricity was about to be cut off, and I freaked out. So I called the energy company, and of course, they wouldn’t speak to me because of the Privacy Act. They wouldn’t help me or tell me what had happened to the money, although the girl said at the end of the conversation after a pause, “I can’t tell you any details about your account, but I can say that often people mix up the gas and electricity if they have an account for both.” Immediately I realised what I’d done, but there was absolutely nothing to do about it. I had to call my husband at work, tell him the details and get him to call.

Just seems like another irritation that makes life more frustrating. Grr. I’ve had a frustrating couple of days. Hopefully it will all get better tomorrow (don’t know what’s different about tomorrow, but there’s always hope).

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Filed under privacy, society

Big Brother is watching you…

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork.” (1984, George Orwell)

Apparently there has been privacy problems with Channel 10’s Big Brother website. Fans are able to sign up for access to “special features” on the website, but this has led to fans’ personal details (including credit card details) being available to all and sundry.

Does anyone else find this as ironically amusing as I do? Or am I just a sick puppy? (Don’t answer that).

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Filed under crazy stuff, privacy, television

Do Not Call Register

Some of you may recall my post on privacy legislation. I was doing a little hunting around, thinking, Surely I’m not the only one who is really irritated with these people calling me from call centres trying to get me to change phone providers?

Turns out that I’m not the only one by any means. With bipartisan support, bills were introduced to Parliament on 25 May to establish a “Do Not Call Register”, to be administered by ACMA. I fully support this initiative.

Watch this space. Seems that there won’t be any calls for “Mrs Foo” any more.

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Privacy Legislation

A while back, in a large storm, a tree fell on my parents’ house (on the roof over their bedroom, to be precise). My parents were not contactable, and therefore, I decided to ring the insurance company to try and get someone to take the tree off the roof and fix the hole.

“I’m sorry, we’re not at liberty to talk to you for privacy reasons,” said the woman on the other end of the line. I explained that I could not get in contact with my parents and that the tree needed to be taken off the roof. I was happy to send in my birth certificate to prove that I was actually their child (seems ridiculous, but there you go). No, still not good enough. In the end, I called the insurance brokers, who were understanding about the whole situation and contacted the insurance company on my behalf. The tree was taken off the roof.

Well, of course I want my details to be private, but there is common sense as well. Sometimes it seems that organisations use the privacy laws as an excuse not to have to deal with your problem. It is really very irritating, and such obstructiveness serves no useful purpose. It just adds to the irritating bureaucratic red tape of life.

I wonder how well the privacy laws work anyway? They don’t seem to stop those people who call up at dinner time trying to get you to change phone providers. The people almost always seem to be calling from a call centre in India. But obviously the details gained by this invasion of privacy are not necessarily accurate. One of these gentlemen was convinced that my name was “Mrs. Foo” (it is not). We had a 10 minute argument about my identity, and after all that, I did not want to change phone providers. It is always a challenge to get rid of these people politely but firmly. We don’t get so many calls any more; perhaps I am on a phone spam black list. Now, there’s an invasion of privacy that I don’t mind.

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Filed under law, privacy, society