Doctors bury their mistakes. Lawyers jail theirs. But bloggers publish theirs for the world to see

By MARK PEARSON

An excerpt from my new book  – Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued: A global guide to the law for anyone writing online:

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Time warps on the Internet. It is one of the most important aspects of new media, and one of the most complicating in legal terms. On the one hand, pressing the ‘Send’ or ‘Publish” button makes your work instant and irretrievable. While the newspaper publisher could always pulp an offensive edition before the trucks left the factory, as a blogger or micro-blogger you have to live with the consequences of your digital publishing errors. Yes, you can remove your blog, tweet or Facebook status within seconds of posting it, and request that it be taken down from search engines. But you can never be sure someone hasn’t captured, downloaded, and forwarded it in the meantime.

This permanent quality of new media does not mix well with an online writer’s impulsiveness, carelessness or substance abuse. There is an old saying: ‘Doctors bury their mistakes. Lawyers jail theirs. But journalists publish theirs for all the world to see’. That can be applied to anyone writing online today. At least in bygone times these mistakes would gradually fade from memory. While they might linger in the yellowing editions of newspapers in library archives, it would take a keen researcher to find them several years later. Now your offensive or erroneous writing is only a Google search away for anyone motivated to look.

British actor Stephen Fry learned this in 2010 when he tweeted his two million followers, insulting Telegraph journalist Milo Yiannopoulos over a critical column. “Fry quickly deleted the tweet once others started to latch on to it, but as we know that rarely helps when you’ve posted something injudicious online: the Internet remembers,” Yiannopoulos wrote.

This new permanence of stored material also creates problems for digital archives – because if the material remains on the publisher’s servers it may be considered ‘republished’ each time it is downloaded, as lawyer Steven Price has blogged. This means that even where there might be some statutory time limitation on lawsuits, the clock starts ticking again with each download so you do not get to take advantage of the time limit until you have removed the material from your site. The best policy is to take all steps to withdraw any dubious material as soon as possible. If others choose to forward or republish it, it has hopefully become their problem rather than yours.

Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued: A global guide to the law for anyone writing online is now available in print format in Australia and New Zealand (UK release in July and US release in October) and as an ebook via Kindle, Google, Kobo and some other providers. [Order details here.]

[Media: Please contact Allen & Unwin direct for any requests for advance copies for review. Contact publicity@allenandunwin.com or call +61 2 8425 0146]

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Doctors bury their mistakes. Lawyers jail theirs. But bloggers publish theirs for the world to see

  1. Liv

    great reminder for all bloggers!

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