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The Internet never forgets

June 2012

As the internet slowly grows up, I enjoy watching our legal system scampering after it and all the splendid new employment opportunities that it presents for m’learned friends.

There is also plenty of scope for judges to make fools of themselves in the traditional manner (“What does the witness mean by a Tweet?”), but that’s probably unfair.  I’ve been watching some of the Leveson enquiry online (, and his Lordship (aged 62) seems admirably up to speed, even ahead of some of the younger lawyers.

As it turns out, the courts have been pretty sensible in the way in which they have been re-interpreting elderly laws to fit the digital world.  This should not be difficult; theft is theft and libel is libel, whether it is online or in the real world.

A recent case in point is that is that brought by Chris Cairns, the cricketer, who was accused on Twitter of corruption; the tweeter was Lalit Modi, a former chairman of the Indian Premier League.  Cairns sued for libel, the first such case in Britain, and won. Modi may appeal, but at present it seems likely that the 24 word Tweet will cost him over £1m.

The police are also watching Twitter; a young British student was recently jailed for Tweeting a series of unpleasant racist comments about a footballer.

So, I think that it’s us internet users, not the courts, who need to think quite hard about what we do online, and the risks we run.  One of the most seductive characteristics of the internet is that it appears to offer the opportunity to make instant public statements from within a carapace of anonymity.  This is coupled with the feeling that one is only really addressing a few like-minded souls, a feeling encouraged by all the talk of “friends” and “followers” and the like.

These are illusions, because when you put something, wise or otherwise, on any website, you are usually exposing your opinion in the most public way possible since the invention of the Papal Encyclical.  What’s more, it stays there (the internet never forgets), and so you mustn’t be surprised if it is spotted.  And don’t think that the website won’t hand over your name and address; most websites terms of service specifically permit them to turn you in if they feel like it.

Few websites make any effort to check what you publish on their platform, including the really big ones, like Twitter and Facebook.  If you post a comment on either, it’s there for the world to see, unless you take careful steps to prevent it being too visible. Even if you do limit the number of potential viewers, you are nonetheless publishing your views, rather than keeping them private, and the court may still decide that you’ve gone too far.

At least this is all making work for some; an eager new breed of Twitter-chasing lawyers is joining the ambulance chasers and motor claims specialists at the rough end of in the legal profession.  There is also a growing industry in online reputation management, to help you smother negative online comments.

I am convinced that when naïve or foolish people sit at home, or on the bus, and post a comment to a website, they feel safe, cloistered, distanced from reality; so they write things they might never say out loud.  As a consequence, it’s easy for them to lose a sense of proportion.

In my young days I worked for a fine man who taught me much, but his clearest rule was that you should never do anything in business that would embarrass you if news of it appeared on the front page of the Daily Mail.  It’s not always the easiest rule to stick to, but that’s probably why it’s such a good one.

So here’s my advice.  Never post a comment anywhere in haste, or after a glass of wine, and never say anything on Twitter, Facebook or in forum that you would not say on a soapbox in Trafalgar Square, with policemen, reporters and your family watching.  It’ll keep you out of trouble – assuming that’s where you want to be.