Friday, 21 January 2011

Blog postings can backfirfe, collide!

Blog postings can backfire

PUTIK LADA By FOONG CHENG LEONG



Social media influence has hit court proceedings, with lawyers trolling blogs and Wikipedia in search of material that can help them argue the case for their clients.

LAST year brought further interesting development to social media and laws all around the world. Cases making references to social media tools saw an increase.

Social media was a tool for lawyers and litigants to help parties to fight their cases. Social media was also the cause of some parties’ mortification and incarceration.

In one High Court judgment last year, the judge recognised the publication of defamatory blog postings by a husband as one of the grounds to present a divorce petition before the expiry of two years from the date of marriage.

He also recognised that a defamatory statement in a blog posting operated in a borderless realm, and would continue to exist until the maker of the blog removed it.

The challenge against the constitutionality of S. 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, the provision commonly used against Internet users, was dismissed by the High Court.

In this case, the defendant was charged with making disparaging remarks against the Sultan of Perak during the struggle between Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat. The court held, among other things, that the section did not impede freedom of expression. S. 233 is to ensure that the freedom given by the Constitution is exercised responsibly.

The use of Wikipedia as a reference is increasingly recognised in Malaysia, notwithstanding that the reliability of Wikipedia is questionable, as anyone can add or edit an entry in Wikipedia.

Nevertheless, the reliance on Wikipedia by our courts can be traced in reported cases as early as 2007.

Last year Wikipedia was referred to in Etonic Garment Manufacturing Sdn Bhd v Kunn-G Freight System (M) Sdn Bhd [2010] 1 LNS 13 (for the meaning of freight forwarder), PP v Murugan a/l Arumugam [2009] 1 LNS 1759 (for the meaning of atherosclerosis) and Thai Long Distance Telecommunication Co Ltd & Anor v Malaysian Maritime Dredging Corpo­ration Sdn Bhd (Kuala Lumpur Suit No: D-22-352-2005, for the meaning of chart datum).

Social media influence had also hit court room proceedings. It is common in Malaysia for people, in particular reporters, to tweet live from the courts. In the United Kingdom, the Lord Chief Justice issued a guideline for the use of live text-based forms of communication from court.

In this guideline, the Lord Chief Justice approved the use of Twitter for court reporting. However, in the US, certain courts ban the use of social media by juries.

In the US case of Romano v. Steelcase Inc, 2006-2233 (N.Y. Super. Sept. 21, 2010), Kathleen Romano sued Steelcase Inc for injuries she suffered after she fell off an allegedly defective desk chair manufactured by Steelcase Inc.

As a result of the fall, she claimed, she suffered restricted movement of her neck and back and “pain and progressive deterioration with consequential loss of enjoyment of life”.

In defence, Steelcase applied to access Romano’s current and historical Facebook and Myspace pages and accounts which are believed to be inconsistent with her claims in the action concerning the extent and nature of her injuries, especially for loss of enjoyment of life. The court granted Steelcase’s application.

Similarly, in McMillen v Hummingbird Speedway Inc, et al, Court of Common Pleas of Jefferson County, Pennsylvania, Civil Division, No. 113-2010 CD, Opinion on Defendants’ Motion to Compel Discovery (Sept. 9. 2010), the plaintiff sued the defendants for injuries suffered.

The defendants claimed that posts on the public portion of his Facebook page showed that he had exaggerated his injuries. The court granted the defendants access to the plaintiff’s private portion of his Facebook and Myspace account to determine whether or not the plaintiff had made any other comments which impeached and contradicted his disability and damages claims.

Closer to home, in a reported Industrial Court case, an employee claimed that she was forced by her employer to resign.

In response, her employer argued that the resignation was voluntary and they produced extracts of the claimant’s blog which showed the claimant had written about her feelings regarding her employment with the employer.

In it, she stated that she wanted to leave the company and admitted that she went for job interviews as she had already decided to go away.

The Industrial Court chairman relied on the blog entries to find that the employee had intended to leave and found that she had gladly tendered her resignation to take on new employment.

In Australia, a hairdresser won compensation for wrongful dismissal after losing her job for making unflattering remarks about her employer on her Facebook.

In Miss Sally-Anne Fitzgerald v Dianna Smith T/A Escape Hair Design [2010] FWA 7358, Commissioner Michelle Bissett for Fair Work Australia said that posting comments about an employer on a website (Facebook) that can be seen by an uncontrollable number of people is no longer a private matter but a public comment.

It would be foolish of employees to think they may say as they wish on their Facebook page with total immunity.

This year brings another exciting watershed to Malaysia’s social media legal sphere. The Personal Data Protection Act 2010, which governs the processing of personal data, is pending enforcement.

Proposed amendments to the Copyright Act 1987 have been drawn up in the form of a Bill to exempt Internet service providers from liability for copyright infringement under certain circumstances.

The Bill also empowers the court to order an Internet service provider to disable access to infringing material.
Furthermore, the so-called Internet Service Providers Liability Act may be passed to compel Internet service providers to take action against their users if they download songs or movies illegally.

The writer is a young lawyer. Putik Lada, or pepper buds in Malay, captures the spirit and intention of this column – a platform for young lawyers to articulate their views and aspirations about the law, justice and a civil society. For more information about the young lawyers, visit www.malaysianbar.org.my.

When blogs and big business collide

OPTIMISTICALLY CAUTIOUS By ERROL OH



REMEMBER a blog called Sime Darby Watch (SDW)? It has been completely wiped out when the mysterious blogger he never revealed his identity on the blog abruptly called it quits in April 2009. It's therefore hard to pinpoint when it was created, but early 2008 seems to be a safe bet.

One news report puts it as March 2008. That was not long after the completion of the mega-merger that saw Sime Darby Bhd, Kumpulan Guthrie Bhd and Golden Hope Plantations Bhd becoming a single entity we now know as Sime Darby Bhd.

It was apparent that the blogger had not come from the old Sime Darby. In fact, he explained that the blog was “for employees of the now-defunct Kumpulan Guthrie and Golden Hope to voice their views and concerns”. The blogger clearly had access to a lot that was going on at the new Sime Darby and was decidedly critical of its management, which was dominated by executives from the old Sime Darby. He often brought to light major developments and issues at the company that had not been publicly available.

SDW was easily the most well-known among the blogs that targeted local businesses. Sime Darby was (and still is) one of Malaysia's biggest companies, and the merger had enlarged it further although not everyone thought the exercise was a good idea. And as a government-linked company, there was (and still is) a political dimension to many of its actions and decisions. These factors guaranteed a ready audience for dirt on Sime Darby.

The blogger's ability to consistently expose alleged wrongdoings and his writing skills in lambasting his target, also helped SDW garner a significant following.

No other anti-corporation blogs have so far come close to SDW's influence. Most have been short-lived, seldom lasting beyond a handful of entries after the bloggers had run out of things to say or have simply exhausted their motivation to blog.

However, another blog has recently surfaced, promising to go on “for months to come to weed out corporate misconducts (sic) as a service to the taxpayers and Malaysians in general”. The blog's title, zarinahtakesapaycut, is a swipe at Securities Commission chairman Tan Sri Zarinah Anwar, but the principal target is actually professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

The anonymous blogger has been prolific so far. The blog kicked off on Dec 1 last year with four postings. Until yesterday, there have been 34 more. That's an average of one posting every 36 hours! He has also been persistent (and somewhat pesky), compiling an email list to ensure that all those on the list including this columnist and some colleagues are notified whenever the blog has a new entry.

The blogger definitely knows a thing or two about grabbing attention. The headlines for the blog entries are usually cleverly crafted and compelling. The blogger has been creative and resourceful in generating angles and themes that suggest that the blog is constantly introducing fresh information and highlighting new players and developments. For example, a Dec 31 entry cited a May 2009 article by this columnist to back up the blog's claims about PwC.

The truth is, zarinahtakesapaycut is a relentless attempt to discredit PwC by harping on the same few issues. The bias is obvious. Only the hopelessly clueless will think that the blogger is being objective. Even so, we can't dismiss the blog with the wave of a hand, partly because the blogger is insistent in bombarding readers with details.

This is not the place to dwell on how much of the blog is factual. The point here is that the blogosphere has become part albeit a small one for now of the corporate landscape. However, we have yet to properly understand how we treat the information we get from the blogs. The idea of regulating blogs is an incendiary matter and we may not even have to go there but there ought to be more discussion and engagement within the business community about this subject.

How can we not be ambivalent about these anonymous bloggers who attack listed companies, Big Four firms and business regulators? On one hand, we are thrilled by the pugnacious muckraking and the whiff of scandal, and we cheer the notion of the lone guy, armed with a PC and Internet connection, going up against the deep-pocketed, soulless corporation? Yet, can we really afford to ignore the questions about the bloggers' motives and integrity, and the veracity of the information they put up in cyberspace?

Sure, we can agree that everybody ought to take the content of these blogs with a pinch of salt, but that does nothing to address the lack of fairness and transparency that can occur. Besides, if the bloggers are indeed accurate and have revealed stuff that the companies had intended to hide, our scepticism may well work against us. And what if the bloggers are way off the mark, or worse, are deliberately spreading lies? In such cases, sometimes, no amount of salt can undo the damage suffered by the targets. And when the businesses suffer, their stakeholders (such as the minority shareholders) feel the pain as well.

Yes, legal action is an option, and yes, the mainstream media isn't perfect either. We know this, but what we need to learn next is how to effectively deal with irresponsible blogging. In business, as in politics, one of the worst things that can happen to us is when our ability to choose what to believe in, is weakened by bad information.

Deputy executive editor Errol Oh doesn't have a blog.


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