Reputation in a Networked World: Revisiting the Social Foundations of Defamation Law
68 Pages Posted: 10 Oct 2010 Last revised: 18 May 2014
Date Written: September 12, 2012
It is time again to rethink defamation law. The law we know today saw its origin in feudal times, expanded to serve as a counterweight to the disruption occasioned by the printing press, and was constitutionalized in the low-participation age of broadcast and print mass media. The journalistic institutions that led the fight for constitutional reform are now in decline while online platforms optimized for high participation, such as blogs, social networks, and discussion forums, are in ascendency. In this age of the networked information economy, reputation occupies a very different role in the social order than it did even twenty years ago.
Using a recent defamation lawsuit filed by the actor Ron Livingston against a user of Wikipedia as a lens through which to examine defamation law's operation in our increasingly networked society, this Article argues that defamation law suffers from significant doctrinal and practical limitations that preclude it from achieving its goal of protecting reputation. Cognizant of these limitations, it offers some guidelines for reforming defamation law, suggesting that existing monetary remedies should be deemphasized while alternative approaches that seek to correct inaccurate information and provide opportunities for contextualization should be pursued.
The Article concludes that we should take as our touchstone that reputation is a societal interest and devise remedies that leverage the power of communities to deal with reputational harm. Although the global communication networks that are the hallmarks of our networked society have brought new reputational challenges, they also provide novel solutions to prevent and ameliorate those harms. One solution is to enlist, through legal and social incentives, the help of online intermediaries such as content hosts and search providers. These intermediaries play a central role in community governance and are often in a position to recognize and respond to reputational harms. By harnessing the power of communities to deter and mitigate reputational harm, we will be better able to balance the protection of reputation with society’s desire to maintain an environment for speech that is conducive to public engagement and vigorous debate.
Keywords: Defamation, Reputation, Cyberlaw, Internet, Libel, Privacy, First Amendment
JEL Classification: K13, O33, K1, K2
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation