By Matthew Belloni
Back in the early days of the Web, plenty of media lawyers predicted that without discerning, professional journalists filtering content, malicious falsehoods would proliferate and libel lawsuits, in turn, would increase.
Turns out the opposite is true. The NY Observer's John Koblin zeroes in on
a trend we've also noticed: with the exception of some high-profile celebrity dustups (many of which are filed in friendlier British courts), we just aren't seeing many libel lawsuits any more. Like, at all.
As any discerning Web-surfer knows, there certainly isn't a lack of false information online. But as Koblin points out, the very democratization of media that many predicted would open the floodgates of litigation has provided an outlet for the defamed to fight back. And with the ability to correct stories online, most libel-related disputes are getting resolved before they result in litigation. (So the lawyers aren't working any less hard, they're just not filing and litigating as many lawsuits.)
This makes sense. After all, libel law developed based on a key presumption: that those who enjoy access to media hold a certain power over those who don't. (That's one reason why the standard for defamation is different for a public figure like a celebrity than it is for Average Joe; the public figure presumably has more access to media to counter the defamatory item.) When that power was abused and caused damage, redress was appropriate.
Now, of course, anyone can publish anything and reach every dark corner of the globe (assuming that dark corner has Wifi). And unlike the quaint old days of print, false information published online can be disappeared under threat of lawsuit just as quickly as it appeared.
Koblin also notes that media companies don't have as much cash as they once did. We're not sure this has been a factor contributing the decline in lawsuits—people tend not to consider the long-term viability of their legal adversary before deciding to sue—but we do believe the rising cost of litigation, coupled with the tough legal standard under the First Amendment and the relative infrequency of recent plaintiff wins, has played a role. And the UK courts siphoning off cases is clearly a factor.
You could even make the argument that, barring extraordinary situations, false media can now be fought more effectively with more media rather than with the legal system. Will libel lawsuits--if not libel laws—someday disappear entirely?