At the moment the British press are reporting that one if its small councils, South Tyneside, has been to the US to subpoena Twitter to get the name of somebody in the UK who is saying things about three of their councillors and one of their officers which they say is untrue. The question is whether this is a good idea.
I wrote this comment after reading Steve Chu’s views on this point where his recommendation was “Surely it's better to keep your head down, get on with your vital work in these tough times, and avoid presenting yourselves as a vindictive bully? If you don't like it, just don't read it.”
In general, I think Steve is right. In a short time from now there could be thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of libels out there, most of which will be heard by nobody and which would cost millions to try and combat. It is simply not practical to pursue every online comment or tweet that might be false or damaging.
In the long term the ISPs and the platforms may arrive at a challenge system which restores some sanity (but hopefully not too much control).
However, for the time being I think people and organisations need to consider the impact of a comment. If a newspaper libels somebody, it is worth pursuing them because newspapers are still believed to be true by many people. If a solitary blogger/tweeter says something, then it is often best to ignore it. Only if that something is being re-tweeted, re-posted or passed on is it even worth considering. If someone is not reaching an audience then taking action against them is likely to spread it further. Before South Tyneside took this action most of the UK had never heard of it, now some of their councillors are nationally famous!
One side effect of the story, so far, is to show that South Tyneside are not very understanding in what the public think is a lot of money. When the expense of going to the US to open court proceedings was challenged, their response was that so far it had cost less than £75,000, but in South Tyneside you could buy a house for that, and the wage of a council worker doing a manual job can be as low as £12,000 a year.
Of course, the world is even more complex if what is said is partly or largely true, which might be the case in some of the footballer and banker stories that have been hitting the press recently, but then suing is just plain daft in this day and age.