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Report on taming 'wild west' bloggers awaited

TOM PULLAR-STRECKER
Last updated 05:00 05/12/2011
FACING THE MUSIC: Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater after a court appearance.
Fairfax NZ
FACING THE MUSIC: Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater after a court appearance.

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OPINION: Bloggers are nervously waiting for the publication of the Law Commission's report on "new media" next Monday.

Former Commerce Minister Simon Power raised their blood pressure when he ordered the review in October last year, commenting that there was a "wild west out there in cyberspace".

InternetNZ chief executive Vikram Kumar said at the time that if that was what Power really believed, "we've got reasons to be very, very worried".

Power was concerned about breaches of suppression orders, libel on the internet, and whether bloggers and online publications should be subject to oversight by the Press Council or Broadcasting Standards Authority.

Blogger David Farrar, of Kiwiblog, expects a high-brow report but believes it is unlikely the Law Commission will advocate an "uber regulator" for new media.

For one thing, drawing the line between what is and what is not "the media" appears difficult if not impossible in an era when anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can be a publisher.

Would it include news websites, magazines that were once in print and are now published entirely online, internet newsletters, blogs, or people who post on Facebook?

There are 75 acts of Parliament that refer to the media, Farrar says. Many, such as the Privacy Act, bestow benefits on the press that are not afforded to non-media, yet nowhere in any of the legislation is "the media" defined.

With responsibilities come rights, so the easiest way to tackle the "problem" might be to let people who publish on the internet decide for themselves whether or not they want to be classified as part of the media by letting them "opt in" to oversight by the likes of the Press Council.

Bloggers and others who chose to do so would be able to benefit from the privileges afforded to the media, but only if they accepted the same obligations to be fair and balanced and to have a system for dealing with complaints, and presumably contributed to the council's upkeep.

An alternative might be for the commission to try to draw a distinction between media professionals who interviewed people and conducted their own independent research, and bloggers who relied only on publicly available information such as news reports, press releases and their own expert opinions to provide commentary on issues.

There is some logic to recognising that distinction. After all, if online publishers base articles and postings only on information that is in the public domain and therefore easy to check, so what if their work is sometimes inaccurate or unfair?

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"The whole way accuracy and fairness works online tends to be quite different to traditional media," Farrar says. "In the traditional media it is about letters to the editor and formal complaints. In the blogosphere almost all sites allow comments where people can point out something is wrong and other blogs can gang up on you. It is a different method but a reasonably effectively one."

Farrar and InternetNZ both note Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater was successfully prosecuted for repeatedly flouting name suppression laws last year, showing the internet is perhaps not the wild west that Power described.

But one issue to watch is what conclusions, if any, the commission tries to draw about the implications of the cross-jurisdictional nature of the internet.

If it is impractical for courts to take overseas online publishers to task when they breach name suppression orders or for people to take action when they are defamed by websites or internet postings overseas, is there any point in playing King Canute when a New Zealand-domiciled site breaks the rules?

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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