The Internet transcends geographic boundaries, and this means people can reach out to others regardless of location or distance. However, this also means that the principles governing legal matters might also need re-thinking. For instance, legal jurisdiction is not as easily established as with cases wherein the parties involved are within the same political boundaries.
Laws like the DMCA (among many others) base jurisdiction upon the actual physical location of data -usually the laws in the country where the host server resides would apply. Parties who wish to circumvent such laws usually choose to host offshore (in neutral territory, or one without relevant laws). However, when it’s not the legality of the data itself that’s being debated, but acts done by individuals, then it becomes more complicated. And things become more interesting as people and companies continue to test the limits of the legal systems in various countries.
Let’s take the example of a recent case that transcends national borders. Spiegel Online reports (English translation here) of a company in China suing a blogger in Germany for an allegedly libelous blog post (English translation here).
If you cannot understand German, or if you find the Google translation a pain to read, you can refer to this blog post that summarizes the issue.
Neoplan, a subsidiary of industrial-vehicle manufacturer MAN, created a luxury touring bus in 2004. It was found that in 2005, a Chinese company named Zonda was also marketing a bus that had an almost-exact design, including much of the minute details. Neoplan announced in October 2006 that it filed a suit against Zonda for patent infringement, and the story had been picked up by the German press. Auto-blog autoregional.de picked up the story, too, linking to Der Spiegel.
Just recently, the authors of autoregional.de received a libel suit filed by Zonda in China. The company claims that the statements made on the blog were offensive and were seen in the light of unfair competition. The authors were then asked to appear in court (in China!) this July.
In an update to the original autoregional.de post, author Ron Hillman states that he only linked to articles published online by mainstream media. Also, he cites blog statistics, and claims these are negligible (particularly compared to the news sites).
Picking on the little guy?
There is no word from Der Spiegel or other news outfits whether they’re likewise being sued by the Chinese company. It could seem that the autoregional.de blogger is being singled out because he is an easy target. For one, if the choice of words in the autoregional.de blog post were the point of contention, then other newspaper sites had even worse things to say about Zonda (and even China in general), and a complaint against these would probably have more weight.
Perhaps there’s good reason for bloggers to worry–we’re not protected by publishers and the laws that govern journalists, as our counterparts in mainstream media are. True, we’re free to express ourselves, but sometimes there are people out looking for ways to take advantage of bloggers (and our money?). I personally know someone being sued for comments made by users on a forum he used to manage, and I think it’s grown to be quite a headache.
Legal points aside, what comes to mind is whether Zonda did a sensible thing in filing the lawsuit against a blogger. For one, they might have made the issue even bigger than it was. Now they have angry bloggers (and blog commenters) to contend with. Whether the lawsuit would hold water (especially considering the geographic aspects)–that we’ll have to find out.
If there are legal experts reading this, we’d very much appreciate your thoughts.
Image from spiegel.de