- September 25, 2007
The emergence of blogging has brought a range of legal liabilities and other often unforeseen consequences. One area of concern is the issue of bloggers releasing proprietary or confidential information. Another area of concern is blogging and defamation. A third area of concern is employees who write about aspects of their place of employment or their personal lives, and then face loss of employment or other adverse consequences. A number of examples of blogging and its sometimes negative or unforeseen consequences are cited here.
Defamation or liability
Several cases have been brought before the national courts against bloggers concerning issues of defamation or liability. The courts have returned with mixed verdicts. Internet Service Providers (ISPs), in general, are immune from liability for information that originates with Third Parties (U.S. Communications Decency Act and the EU Directive 2000/31/EC).
In John Doe v. Patrick Cahill, the Delaware Supreme Court held that stringent standards had to be met to unmask anonymous bloggers, and also took the unusual step of dismissing the libel case itself (as unfounded under American libel law) rather than referring it back to the trial court for reconsideration. In a bizarre twist, the Cahills were able to obtain the identity of John Doe, who turned out to be the person they suspected: the town”s mayor, Councilman Cahill”s political rival. The Cahills amended their original complaint, and the mayor settled the case rather than going to trial.
In Malaysia, eight Royal Dutch Shell Group companies collectively obtained in June 2004 an Interim Injunction and Restraining Order against a Shell whistleblower, a Malaysian geologist and former Shell employee, Dr John Huong. The proceedings are in respect of alleged defamatory postings attributed to Dr Huong on a weblog hosted in North America but owned and operated by an 89 year old British national, Alfred Donovan, a long term critic of Shell. The Shell action is directed solely against Dr Huong. Further proceedings against Dr Huong were issued by the same plaintiff companies in 2006 in respect of publications on Donovan weblog sites in 2005 and 2006. The further proceedings include a “Notice to Show Cause” relating to a “contempt of court” action potentially punishable by imprisonment. The contempt hearing and a related application by the eight Royal Dutch Shell plaintiff companies for Dr Huong to produce Alfred Donovan for cross-examination in connection with an affidavit Donovan provided, was scheduled to be heard in the High Court of Malay in Kuala Lumpur on 17th August 2006. Donovan”s principle weblog is royaldutchshellplc.com. In January 2007, two prominent political bloggers, Jeff Ooi and Ahiruddin Attan were sued by pro-government newspaper, The New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) Berhad, Kalimullah bin Masheerul Hassan, Hishamuddin bin Aun and Brenden John a/l John Pereira over an alleged defamation. The plaintiff was supported by the Malaysian government  . Following the suit, the Malaysian government proposed to “register” all bloggers in Malaysia in order to better control parties against their interest. . This is the first such legal case against bloggers in the country.
In Britain, a college lecturer contributed to a blog in which she referred to a politician (who had also expressed his views in the same blog) using various uncomplimentary names, including referring to him as a “Nazi”. The politician found out the real name of the lecturer (she wrote under a pseudonym) via the ISP and successfully sued her for £10,000 in damages and £7,200 costs.
In the United States blogger Aaron Wall was sued by Traffic Power for defamation and publication of trade secrets in 2005. According to Wired Magazine, Traffic Power had been “banned from Google for allegedly rigging search engine results.” Wall and other “white hat” search engine optimization consultants had exposed Traffic Power in what they claim was an effort to protect the public. The case was watched by many bloggers because it addressed the murky legal question of who”s liable for comments posted on blogs.
Losing one”s employment as a consequence of personal blog commentary about the place of employment has become so commonplace that there is now an informal verb for the event: “dooced”. The word dooce originates from the pseudonym of Heather Armstrong, who lost her job after writing satirical accounts of her place of employment on her personal blog. In general, attempts at hiding the blogger”s name and/or the place of employment in anonymity have proved ineffective at protecting the blogger. Employees who blog about elements of their place of employment raise the issue of employee branding, since their activities can begin to affect the brand recognition of their employer.
Ellen Simonetti, a Delta Air Lines flight attendant, was fired by the airline for photos of herself in uniform on an airplane and comments posted on her blog “Queen of the Sky: Diary of a Flight Attendant” which her employer deemed inappropriate. This case highlighted the issue of personal blogging and freedom of expression vs. employer rights and responsibilities, and so it received wide media attention. Simonetti took legal action against the airline for “wrongful termination, defamation of character and lost future wages”. The suit is postponed while Delta is in bankruptcy proceedings
In the spring of 2006, Erik Ringmar, a tenured senior lecturer at the London School of Economics was ordered by the convenor of his department to “take down and destroy” his blog in which he discussed the quality of education at the school..
Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, was recently fined during the 2006 NBA playoffs for criticizing NBA officials on the court and in his blog.
Mark Jen was terminated in 2005 after a mere 10 days of employment at Google for discussing corporate secrets on his personal blog.
In India, blogger Gaurav Sabnis resigned from IBM after his posts exposing the false claims of a management school, IIPM, led to management of IIPM threatening to burn their IBM laptops as a sign of protest against him.
Jessica Cutler, aka “The Washingtonienne”, blogged about her sex life while employed as a congressional assistant. After the blog was discovered and she was fired, she wrote a novel based on her experiences and blog: The Washingtonienne: A Novel. Cutler is presently being sued by one of her former lovers in a case that could establish the extent to which bloggers are obligated to protect the privacy of their real life associates.
Catherine Sanderson, aka “La Petite Anglaise”, lost her job in Paris at a British accountancy firm as a consequence of blogging. Although given in the blog in a fairly anonymous manner, some of the descriptions of the firm and some of its people were less than flattering. Sanderson later won a compensation claim case against the British firm, however.
On the other hand, Penelope Trunk, writing in the Globe in 2006, was one of the first to point out that a large portion of bloggers are professionals, and a well written blog can actually help attract employers.
Blogging can sometimes have unforeseen consequences in politically sensitive areas.
In Singapore, two ethnic Chinese were imprisoned under the country’s anti-sedition law for posting anti-Muslim remarks in their weblogs.
Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer was charged of insulting the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and an Islamic institution through his online blog. It is the first time in the history of Egypt that a blogger was prosecuted. After a brief trial session that took place in Alexandria, the blogger was found guilty and sentenced to prison terms of three years for insulting Islam and inciting sedition, and one year for insulting Mubarak.
Egyptian blogger Abdel Monem Mahmoud was arrested in April 2007 for things written in his blog. Monem, for whom a campaign has been taken up at  is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
After expressing opinions in his personal weblog about the state of the Sudanese armed forces, Jan Pronk, United Nations Special Representative for the Sudan, was given three days notice to leave Sudan. The Sudanese army had demanded his deportation.
One unfortunate consequence of blogging is the possibility of attacks or threats against the blogger, sometimes without apparent reason. A blog is, after all, open to the public to read and respond to. Kathy Sierra, author of the innocuous blog Creating Passionate Users, was the target of such vicious threats and misogynistic insults that she canceled her keynote speech at a technology conference in San Diego, fearing for her safety.  While a blogger”s anonymity is often tenuous, internet trolls who would attack a blogger with threats or insults can be emboldened by anonymity. Sierra and supporters initiated an online discussion aimed at countering abusive online behavior, and developed a blogger”s code of conduct.