The Perilous World of Online Content

December 22, 2011

Cyberlaw logoIn a world full of web sites, blogs, and tweets, Joe Gordon’s experience is a sobering one.

Recently convicted by a court in Thailand for violating that nation’s prohibition against defamation of its royal family Mr. Gordon, an American citizen, now faces two and a half years in a Thai prison. 

According to the court, Mr. Gordon’s illegal conduct consisted of posting online his translations of excerpts from a banned biography of Thailand’s king.

If Mr. Gordon’s punishment seems harsh, bear in mind the fact that the original sentence was five years, but it was reduced when Gordon agreed to plead guilty.

Admittedly, there are some relatively unusual circumstances in Mr. Gordon’s case:  he was born in Thailand and was in Thailand when he was arrested.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that today’s communications and information technologies make it possible for everyone to be a digital publisher. 

Adding another level of complexity, those technologies make us each global publishers.

The content we create reaches around the world, accessed by people we may never meet, and subject to laws and rules which are totally unfamiliar to us.

Yet, the fact that we do not know our online readers and we are unaware of the laws of the countries in which they reside does not protect us. 

We must face the legal consequences associated with our digital expressions.

Do not make the mistake of assuming that only a few countries impose legal liability for online content. 

It is more accurate to assume that every nation prohibits some form of online material.

Several nations in addition to Thailand, Saudi Arabia for one, impose sanctions for defamation of their royal families.

Many governments, such as China, impose penalties for various forms of political and religious content. 

Even nations that place great emphasis on information technology and have developed into thriving commercial centers, such as Singapore, continue to apply legal restrictions to online content.

The traditionally liberal democracies are not immune to this trend. 

The United States imposes severe sanctions for content including copyright infringing material, child pornography, and materials facilitating terrorism.

The United Kingdom’s liberal defamation laws make it possible for a wide range of people to challenge online materials.

Mr. Gordon is not alone.

Publishers of online content all face complex legal compliance challenges and significant legal threats.

Large and small digital content creators risk liability with every online post.

Some countries have even expanded the type of content for which you are held legally responsible.

Thailand, for example, recently warned Facebook users that they could be held responsible for violating the same law under which Mr. Gordon was convicted even if they don’t do anything more than “share” or “like” images or articles that are deemed unflattering to the Thai monarchy.

The keys to survival in this daunting environment are prudence and knowledge.

Never put material online without first exercising careful judgment regarding the appropriateness of the material. 

In addition, continuously monitor the laws and regulations affecting online content liability in key jurisdictions.

Penalties for errors in judgment and ill-informed actions are severe in the online environment.

 The best protection against this threat is caution and information.

In a world where everyone can be a publisher, and where foreign travel is increasingly common, we must all think like publishers, accepting responsibility for our content and remaining informed as to our legal obligations.

This is particularly important with respect to those countries where one might intend to travel or visit – and thus subject oneself to possible arrest and prosecution.

Mr. Gordon’s “crime,” after all, was committed in Colorado, some five years before his visit to Thailand.

For more information on Alliance Law Group, LLC, Jeff Matsuura, or Crag Blakeley, please visit the ALG website.  For more information on information technology law, see their book Global Information Technology Law, 2011 ed.