In seven short days, it will be Halloween. But while the the ghosts practice their moaning and the werewolves sharpen their fangs, I’m reminded of an old maxim that nothing is more frightening than a scary story that happens to be true.
Unfortunately for bloggers, there happens to be a great deal to be scared of out there. While there are many reasons you shouldn’t be too scared of being sued, the truth is that nightmare scenarios do happen occasionally and, when they do, they can make things very difficult for a blogger.
So, in honor of the year’s scariest holiday, I’m going to cover three legal nightmares that happened to otherwise unsuspecting bloggers.
While these probably won’t happen to you, it’s important to remember that the legal system can be a scary place at times and, as a blogger, you run the risk of being thrown into it in a major way.
1. UK Blogger Sued in Australia for Libel
Back in 2009, video game blogger Bruce Everiss investigated the company Evony LLC, which back then was best known for its overtly sexual ads for its online game of the same name.
Everiss’ accusations against the company were varied and weighty in nature. According to Everiss, he learned that Evony LLC, though technically a company registered in the U.S., was involved with Chinese gold-farming companies, that the company infringed the IP of the game Civilization for its game and stole images to create its notorious ads. Everiss also implied that Evony’s client was malware.
This prompted Evony LLC to sue Everiss for libel. However, what made the case unusual was that Evony LLC, a U.S. company with alleged Chinese connections, chose to sue Everiss, a UK citizen, in Australia.
The reason Evony LLC did this was due to something called forum shopping. Australia has notoriously plaintiff-friendly libel laws and, if Evony LLC could show that their reputation was harmed in the region, they had a decent shot at winning, especially since there was no practical way for Everiss to defend himself. Even worse, once Evony obtained a verdict in Australia they might have been able to file litigation in the UK to to collect on any judgment they received.
Everiss posted on his blog about the lawsuit and the story quickly attracted mainstream media attention. Fortunately for Everiss, the lawsuit was dropped by March of the next year.
Though Evony LLC said that decision was due to “criticism” from gamers over the lawsuit, though others speculate it’s because Evony LLC didn’t want the attention to the lawsuit to overshadow the launch of it’s sequel “Evony Age II”.
Although this case ended well, for over half a year, Everiss was staring down the barrel of a case he couldn’t hope to win and only avoided due to public pressure.
2. Blogger Learns He may not “Own” His Followers
In 2010, Noah Kravitz left his job as editor-in-chief and blogger at PhoneDog, a website dedicated to mobile phone reviews. During his time at the company, he had started up a Twitter account, @PhonedogNoah, that he maintained. However, when he left the company, he changed his name to @NoahKravitz and, according to Kravitz, he had an arrangement with PhoneDog to let him keep the account under certain conditions.
However, in 2011 PhoneDog sued Kravitz, saying in part that the follower list could be considered a “customer list” and the company sought damages of $2.50 per follower, per month. This amounted to approximately $340,000 for the 17,000 plus followers Kravitz had built up.
The case caused quite a stir online and raised questions about who actually “owns” the followers on social media accounts. However, the issues remain very much undecided as the case is still ongoing as of last report, with a judge most recently dismissing two of the four claims against Kravitz, though giving PhoneDog the chance to amend them and refile.
Kravitz, on the other hand, claims that the lawsuit was only filed because he sued first over money he alleged PhoneDog owes him. Either way, the case will be entering its second year shortly.
3. Blogger Arrested and Jailed for Insulting a King
When it comes to most legal nightmares that bloggers face, the cases are usually civil in nature. This means that a plaintiff can sue for damages but one’s freedom is typically not at stake.
However, that wasn’t the case for Joe W. Gordon, a Thai-born U.S. citizen who was arrested in 2011 for a blog post insulting the kin of Thailand.
Gordon returned to Thailand after 30 years in the U.S. While there, he posted a link on his blog to an “unauthorized biography” of the king and was arrested ounder the country’s lèse-majesté law, which protects the monarchy against defamation, insults and threats with criminal penalties of up to 20 years.
Gordon was sentenced later that year to 2.5 years in jail for the insult, a sentence he is currently still serving.
The case reminds us that, while laws may prevent criminal prosecution of defamatory speech in the U.S. and elsewhere, such laws are not universal and, in some cases, speaking ill of someone, in particular someone in power, can land you in jail.
To be clear, these are extreme scenarios that are very unlikely under normal blogging situations. If you do your best to blog in an ethical way, you probably won’t find yourself in a lawsuit, let alone a legal nightmare of this caliber.
That being said, it’s important to note that the legal system can be unfair and can put you in extreme situations, such as being sued in a foreign country, not owning your followers or even being arrested for insulting a king.
These are the risks you take by running a blog and posting online. You expose yourself to the entirety of the world and that includes both the best and the worst of its people and of its legal systems. To make matters worse, the newness of the Web means that, in many places, the law has not caught up and can produce legal cases and situations that feel out of touch with the technology.
It’s a brave new world and while it can be a beautiful one to explore, it can be dangerous as well. Never forget that.