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Legal risks on the rise for personal and business bloggers

Bloggers beware! Content posted on blogs can carry legal consequences and bloggers are responsible. The number of bloggers is increasing as more individuals and businesses use this popular technology to communicate widely. Most would probably be surprised that their blogs are considered a medium just like a published newspaper.

Attorneys say that bloggers are most certainly responsible for the content they post. Lydia Jones with the Adams and Reese law firm says bloggers are legally responsible for the content they post online under traditional libel law as well as invasion of privacy law.

“So a blogger like any other publisher of content may express opinions, even unpopular opinions or controversial opinions, without legal liability,” she said. “However, making certain types of statements that may be construed as libelous, like making a false statement about someone’s criminal history, may subject bloggers, like other publishers, to legal liability for the damages caused by his or her false statements.

“While a person may be responsible for their blogging, it’s important to also consider business bloggers, including those persons who blog on behalf of a corporate or business entity. In that case, the business may be responsible for the content posted by any paid blogger.”

Whit Rayner practices with the litigation group with a specialty in intellectual property in the Jackson law firm of Watkins Ludlam Winter & Stennis. “Frequently people tend to think of the Internet as some kind of magical place not subject to the same rules as traditional media, but it is,” he says. “They forget that the same rules apply. The person giving an opinion is protected by the constitution, just like with the press, but when they express facts, they run into possible libel and defamation.”

He says there can be problems for sites manned by a professional, if they’re not careful, and with sites that are not purely informational or opinion, such as those mixing advertising with advice. In these cases, constitutional rights are not the same.

“It can be problematical if a blogger uses a photo or the trademark of a business to imply there’s some affiliation when there is none,” Rayner said. “Sometimes we see blogs using these images to attract people to a business or commercial endeavors.”

Both attorneys advise bloggers to do so responsibly. “That means to balance your right to express opinions with the rights of others not to be cast in a false light or to be described by false or misleading facts, whether disparaging or not,” Jones said.

Rayner reminds bloggers to treat that technology just like they would any existing media, such as a newspaper or anything published. “Remember, something on the Internet never goes away,” he added. “It’s easier to get rid of a book than something on the Internet. Don’t forget that you’re speaking to an audience. To some extent it can be anonymous, but it’s really not.”

That anonymity can make it difficult to track down bloggers and hold them liable for any false statements or any acts that invade someone’s privacy online, Jones says. The legal standard to evaluate whether an Internet service provider or website or blogsite served with a subpoena must disclose the identity of an anonymous blogger is still developing and will vary depending upon the facts and the applicable state law.

“In addition, unique types of blogging such as student blogging or workplace blogging may have different types of legal consequences,” she said. “For example, a public school student’s rights regarding blogging will differ from a private school student’s rights by virtue of the public/private school factual difference — those being in public school having slightly more freedom since the First Amendment protects speech from government censorship.”

She explains that the same is somewhat true for an employee of the government versus an employee of a private entity. “Of course, whether one can be fired for blogging at work or fired for blogging even while not at work will turn on several factual specific considerations,” she added.

Dave Stepro owns Neosynk, a virtual agency of freelance artists, programmers and public relations specialists, and is technically savvy.

“I started a blog some time back when it was first getting popular,” he said. “I eventually lost interest in it because I couldn’t find the time to update it regularly. I really don’t think the average user understands the legal ramifications involved. The perceived anonymity and ease of setting up a blog disguises the seriousness of having an outlet as powerful as the Internet at one’s disposal.”

Jones sees the legal considerations of blogging as a growing issue. “What is interesting is the growth in what is known as ‘blog seeding’ over the last several years where ideas are planted and grown, sometimes organically and sometimes with the help of the blogger who may repeatedly re-post or pre-date their materials,” she said.

“Whether a personal idea or an idea that influences other people’s buying habits and preferences, blog seeding is an everyday reality for anyone doing business on the Web.”

Blog seeding apparently became so misleading in the form of unfair sales and marketing practices in the European Union that the EU enacted the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations to protect the public from deceitful blogging activities, she added. The regulations became law on May 26, 2008, in the United Kingdom.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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