Andrew Weaver has been the recipient of some rather nasty commentary from some less respectable members of the Canadian press writing in the National Post. This sector of the press has over the years, but especially since the CRU email leak, shown a consistent disregard for reality.
Weaver feels that his reputation is being unfairly tarnished “by a a series of unjustified libels based on grossly irresponsible falsehoods that have gone viral on the Internet”, and he is fighting back. He has launched a libel suit against the National Post newspaper and its publisher, editors and three writers: Terence Corcoran, Peter Foster and Kevin Libin.
Holding media organizations, and story writers responsible for the content the produce is absolutely essential, especially as any allegiance to the truth has been thrown under a bus by many reporting on this issue. Blatant falsehoods are spreading like wildfires; corrections and retractions are almost nonexistent.
One symptom of this shift is the ongoing campaign of cyber-bullying directed at climate scientists themselves. Any climate scientist in the news now receives a torrent of aggressive and abusive emails. As Stanford’s prominent climatologist Stephen Schneider says: “It’s ugly death threat stuff; ‘You belong in jail,’ ‘You should be executed.’ [This] never happened… a year ago. [But] now it’s off the charts.”
The climate change deniers efforts to intimidate is not confined to verbal threats. Schneider reports that climatologist Ben Santer found a shredded animal on his doorstep late one night after someone rang his doorbell.
Targeting individuals at their residences is a strong indication that the intimidation campaign is determined and well-orchestrated. Internet sites like Climate Depot focus the efforts of an emerging army of aggressive bloggers
The status quo cannot be allowed to stand; some form of accountability is required, and the articles mentioned in the suit, and many more, are contributing to the misinformation that is leading to threats of violence.
It is a shame that the media organizations are not willing to do this themselves, and that people like Weaver have been forced to go to the courts in order achieve the most basic form of accountability.
But Andrew Weaver goes too far.
His suit also identifies four anonymous commenters who also made some equally, if not more libellous comments against Weaver. And while I agree, that these comments are reprehensible, the suit lays responsibility for those comments on the National Post.
If successful this sets a troubling precedent, and threatens the concept of safe harbours (which are not codified in Canadian law). The safe harbour principle states that service providers should not be held accountable for the actions of their users. This is what removes YouTube from any liability when someone posts videos that break the law in one way or another, or when commenters make obviously defamatory and liable comments. Without safe harbours, service providers would be forced to police all user user uploaded content. For many this would make offering such services unfeasible, and we would all be worse off because if this.
The situation with the National Post is more complicated. As a publisher it should absolutely be held responsible for the articles it chooses to publish. But comments are different. The comments are user generated content, and the National Post offers the service of allowing readers to comment on those articles. The comments, reprehensible as they may be, are not the responsibility of the National Post; they are the responsible of their respective owners… at least that is how it should be. Otherwise every website (this one included) could be sued for the comments posted by others.
The correct way of addressing inappropriate comments, is to convince a judge to get the website where the comments are posted to release all the extra information collected when the comment was posted. Things like email address and IP addresses can help identify the commenters so legal action can be brought against them, the people responsible for comments. But this action requires more work, and must be conducted with the knowledge that the comment authors may never be identified.
At most, the courts should be able to compel the removal of an offending comment, but they should never hold the site owner responsible for them.
But the suit contains accusations of libel and maliciousness that are targeted at the standard practices of many websites (including Ars), such as allowing user comments and encouraging readers to alert their friends of the stories…
The common “share this” features that many sites rely on to increase traffic are also mentioned in the suit. Anyone who has followed the public arguments over climate change would fully expect that the text in question would also appear on the usual collection of blogs (with names like “climatehoax” and “climatechangefraud”) run by the community that considers itself to be climate skeptics. The suit alleges that the publisher “knew, intended, and expected” that its defamatory material “would be republished by third parties on the Internet.” The evidence here? Links at the bottom of the online versions of the stories, inviting readers to e-mail the contents to friends or share them via social networking services like Facebook.
This is particularly troubling. There is little doubt that the National Post knew that these stories would end up on denier sites. But it also knew that the stories would be posted else where, likely in places that pointed out the many factual inaccuracies of the articles. That is the point of the ‘share this’ button, it is there to help more widely distribute the content. But the content would have been shared even if there had been no ‘share this’ button.
By claiming this is malicious in the suit, Weaver goes against the very nature of the internet. Sharing stuff we find interesting or reprehensible is an integral part of what makes the internet valuable. The National Post should not be criticized for making this common internet activity easier.
And that’s before Weaver goes after the skeptics’ echo chamber. As part of the remedy, he wants the National Post to hand over the copyright to the offending works. It’s strongly implied that, once in possession of the rights to these documents, Weaver will attempt to force any of the bloggers who have reproduced the text to pull it down.
Using copyright to silence critics, even libellous ones, is not the proper way to deal with them… tempting as it may be. Aside from being an inappropriate use of the law, it is a common tactic used by people with no justification to silence their critics. This is particularly a problem in jurisdictions where notice and takedown laws exists such as in the US.
Obviously I am not suggesting that Weaver has no justification against his critics, only that he is using the wrong approach:
Weaver’s suit appears to have documented a pattern of casual disregard for reality in the plaintiff’s editorializing against him. But, even if the words are ruled defamatory, it’s difficult to support the presentation of common Web practices as evidence of maliciousness, or the proposed remedies, which seek to erase any presence of the offending text.
Weaver should fight back against the irresponsible reporting of the issue, and the libellous statements made by the National Post. But the approach he is taking is overly broad and and if he wins sets a very troubling precedent.