Accused: Charles Richardson, right, is pictured here with Craig Attridge, who represented Mr. Richardson at Magistrates’ Court on Friday. *File photo
Accused: Charles Richardson, right, is pictured here with Craig Attridge, who represented Mr. Richardson at Magistrates’ Court on Friday. *File photo
The criminal defamation case being brought against Bermudian lawyer Charles Richardson over comments he made on Facebook is among the first of its kind.

While civil lawsuits over defamatory comments made on social media are increasingly common, experts say it is almost unheard of for criminal complaints to be brought to the courts.

Mr. Richardson appeared in Magistrates’ Court on Friday charged over disparaging comments he is alleged to have made about a police inspector in a Facebook status update.

His innocence or guilt is not at issue here — it’s the broader implications of his prosecution that has aroused interest.

The rise of social media has spawned a series of legal issues worldwide, with posters apparently unaware that they could face court action over off-hand remarks published on their personal Facebook pages.

But a series of lawsuits in the U.S. and the U.K. have brought the issue into focus. The American rocker Courtney Love is currently being sued over remarks she made on Twitter while former New Zealnd cricketer Chris Cairns is suing Lalit Modi, the founder of the Indian Premier League, over a tweet the Indian billionaire made about him.

The majority, if not all, of  the cases involving social media have been civil actions — meaning the complainant pursues a private case against the person they are accusing of libel, bearing the legal costs, including those of the defendant, if their case is unsuccessful.

In the Bermuda case the Department of Public Prosecutions is bringing the charges against Mr. Richardon in a highly unusual case of criminal defamation.

The DPP did not respond to requests for comment yesterday when asked to clarify if other Facebook users in Bermuda could anticipate facing criminal charges if they made false or defamatory remarks on the website.

Ashley Hurst, a U.K. media lawyer at the firm Olswang, who was involved in Britain’s first civil action involving Facebook, said criminal libel had now been abolished in the UK after being virtually extinct for many years.

But he said social media had given everyone a platform to publish to a wide audience and the number of private libel complaints involving Twitter and Facebook was increasing all the time. He said the potential pay-outs in civil libel cases were often relatively small (because of the size of the audience or triviality of the allegation) and not worth pursuing.

Rare

“While criminal prosecutions for libel are extremely rare, particularly in Europe, there has been a marked increase in the number of civil libel actions being brought in relation to social media publications. “Indeed, many more could be brought if the legal fees for bringing libel actions were more affordable for individuals.

“The difference between social media platforms and traditional media is that newspapers and television companies have lawyers scrutinising their content before publication, whereas bloggers and social media users are usually untrained in the law of libel and don’t appreciate the legal risks of what they are publishing.

“A spontaneous tweet can quickly spread and cause significant damage to reputation before the tweeter realises he has got his facts wrong.“

Mr. Hurst acted on behalf of Mathew Firsht, who was awarded $22,000 in what is believed to be Britian’s first Facebook libel case in 2008. The case centered around a false profile set up in Mr Firsht’s name along with a group called “has Matthew Firsht lied to you?” accusing him and his company of lying to avoid paying debts.

Michael Roberts, founder of online defamation experts Rexxfield, said defamatory statements should not be dismissed as trivial simply because they were made in an informal setting like Facebook or Twitter.

He said comments published online potentially stayed there forever and had the potential to ‘go viral’ being repeated and spread through the web.

“Don’t dismiss this type of thing (web-based libel cases) as petty just because it is on the Internet. This type of libel has the potential to stay there forever. The front page of a newspaper is fleeting in comparison to a false allegagation that pops up every time you search for your name. Google and Yahoo have long memeories.”

Mr. Roberts, who acts as an expert witness in online defamation cases and has been hired to ‘hunt’ anonymous cyber bullies, said he felt the laws should be tighter on internet libel.

He said only 17 States in the U.S. recognize libel as a criminal offence. He also believes social sites like Facebook should be held more accountable for what is published on their  forums.

He said people’s livelihoods were built on their reputations and they had the right to be defended against slurs.

Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of Reputation.Com — a business set up to help victims of ‘internet abuse’, said that despite a slew of civil suits the law was ill-equipped to handle defamation in the internet-age.

The entrepreneur set up a business to help individuals and companies defend their reputation online by using search-engine technology to bury the defamatory material.

He said lengthy civil action in the courts often only fuelled the publicity surrounding a defamatory remark. And he warned that courts often lacked the authority to get the comments removed from the Web completely. Mr. Fertik said demand for his company’s services had grown exponentially with the business swelling from a one-man show to a 100-employee corporation aimed at helping people protect their reputation online.

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