Defamation and the Internet: Our Position
There are several factors which complicate the application of traditional defamation laws to the Internet:
These factors lead some to argue that the Internet requires special treatment of some sort or another in defamation law. It is our position, however, that application of traditional laws not only adequately deals with these issues, but is probably the most efficient and effective way to do so.
The Anonymity Question
To enforce laws against defamation, it is of course necessary that the identity of the defamer be known. On the Internet, however, this is often not possible; many newsgroups, chat rooms, and other forums allow participants complete anonymity. To some extent, this offers a person the opportunity to make defamatory statements without risking legal consequences. Responses to this perceived problem have included the following:
These are extreme reactions, but the more moderate suggestions that have been made are similar in principle. We hold, however, that such responses are not only impractical, but unnecessary.
The first of the above statements is undoubtedly unenforceable, especially since the Internet is an international forum. It is also, most probably, unconstitutional. The second is also dubious, since increasing sysop liability will have the similar result of restricting open speech. The third is an extreme reaction, and its logic is untenable. The fact that defamation laws will sometimes be difficult to enforce on-line ought not to mean that they should be ignored in situations where they can be enforced.
Beyond these difficulties with these positions, however, lies the simple fact that any statement made anonymously over the Internet does not carry the same potential for damage that an attributed statement would. Users who encounter anonymous defamatory statements are unlikely to take them as seriously as they would statements whose authors are willing to acknowledge them, and any resulting harm to the person defamed will therefore be greatly reduced.