Only five per cent of internet users are clear on their legal rights and responsibilities when posting comment online, according to new research from law firm DLA Piper.
Birmingham partner Simon Jones, head of the regional technology and sourcing team, said that even those who regularly post comment on the internet are unsure about their legal liabilities, with 76 per cent of bloggers uncertain or unaware of where the law stands.
The research, conducted by YouGov, revealed a widespread lack of clarity and consensus amongst internet users about the role of the law in relation to blogging and user generated content (UGC).
Only a third of regular internet users read the legal terms and conditions, disclaimers and guidelines for posting comment on the internet forums they use.
This is despite the fact that one in seven (14 per cent) of users has had comments removed or taken down in the past, rising to more than one in four (28 per cent) among those who blog.
Mr Jones said: “Not only are users unaware of their actual legal risks online, they remain to be convinced that they even should be liable for the comments they make.”
Fewer than half (42 per cent) of all internet users think bloggers should be held to the same legal standards as journalists, but of those who actually blog themselves only a quarter (27 per cent) believe they should be subject to the same rules.
Internet users are equally ambivalent on a potential voluntary code of conduct for bloggers and online commentators. Nearly half (46 per cent) agree, but a similar figure (42 per cent) are unsure and only one in eight (12 per cent) is firmly opposed.
Opinion is even divided among bloggers themselves, with over a third (34 per cent) directly opposed to a code of conduct, but about the same number (32 per cent) in support of it.
Mr Jones said: “The combination of confusion and complacency about the relationship between the law and UGC puts users at risk as they come under increasing scrutiny online.
“Blogs and online forums may differ from traditional media in their style and purpose, but their content is still publicly consumed and they have the equivalent potential to cause damage and offence and infringe others’ rights. Far from being immune from the law, UGC is in particular danger of falling foul of it.
“Many people are aware of the need for care when using the internet at work – as well as issues surrounding online piracy. It is clear, however, that many internet users would also benefit from, if not welcome, some clearer guidance about posting comment online.
"There is a big difference between censorship and protection – some have called for a code of conduct to provide guidance for bloggers and other users. That won’t change the law and many bloggers may still say they’ll ‘publish and be damned’ – but they ought to be damned sure what the law says before they do.”
The research also revealed the overall volume of people commenting online is rising – more than half (54 per cent) of respondents had posted some form of comment online, whether on a blog, message board or social networking site. 18-24 year olds are particularly active with the vast majority (84 per cent) participating in some form of UGC.
The importance of individual responsibility in posting messages online was raised recently following the conviction of a blogger in Flintshire, Wales, who posted offensive messages about a police officer’s new-born baby and wrote about his perceived mistreatment at the hands of the police and Crown Prosecution Service. He was prosecuted under the Telecommunications Act, relating to the sending of an electronic message.
Mr Jones said some of the legal pitfalls surrounding user generated comment included:
* Offensive or illegal material
* Corporate blogging: The legal pitfalls can be even more pronounced in the case of corporate blogs where additional commercial concerns will apply