Is Libel Wrong?

GOOGLE was fined $US 8500 in Brazil for libel after an anonymous internet user posted defamatory messages on its hugely popular social networking website, Orkut, against a priest, calling him a “paedophile”. The defamatory post called the priest “the pedophile, the thief who has a lover”. The court in the state of Minas Gerais pronounced its verdict in favor of the 54 year old priest, known as JR. The court rejected the argument that Google should not be held accountable for the actions of its users on Orkut, or even its blogging platform Blogger. Last year, Orkut was fined 5, 00,000 dollars for a fake profile of race car driver, Rubens Barrichello. Orkut is highly popular in India and Brazil, and understandably, these two countries were on the top of the list of countries which requested Google to remove content from its social networking website. “By making space available on virtual networking sites, in which users can post any type of message without any checks beforehand, with offensive and injurious content, and, in many cases, of unknown origin, (Google) assumes the risk of causing damage” said the judge Alvimar de Avila.

Last year, Google was about to be sued for the defamatory material that appears in its search results in Britain. Metropolitan International Schools, a British company that operates Internet-based training courses wanted to sue Google over negative comments posted by a reader of a technology news Web site. Their plans didn’t work out as a British court ruled against it. In 2007, a Londoner Brian Retkin filed a defamation action against the Google, claiming that Google refuses to remove links to sites that libel his company, dotWORLDS.

Should libel be punished? Even if we admit that libel should be a punishable crime (which obviously isn’t true) how could we hold Google liable for billions of web pages, Orkut profiles and communities? Apparently, such rules make no sense, and could only be enforced selectively. This issue is a crucial test for libertarians. As Ayn Rand wrote in “Philosophy: Who Needs It”, “In the transition to statism, every infringement of human rights has begun with the suppression of a given right’s least attractive practitioners. In this case, the disgusting nature of the offenders makes it a good test of ones loyalty to a principle. The alleged limitations on that power, the conditions of when, where and by whom it may be exercised, are of no significance-once the principle that the Government holds such power has been established. The rest is only a matter of detail-and of time.”

People with no respect for absolute principles ask, “Why not be “realistic” and apply principles on the merit of each case? Why deal with issues on a philosophical and academic point of view? Why not act on practical considerations?” They fail to realize that things are much more complicated than that. If we accept the principle that the Government has the right to punish libel, soon the Government will extend the principle to other issues too. Soon, there would be censorship in art, media and literature. It is obvious that bad literature and art are more harmful to the society than occasional cases of libel. Opponents of libel can’t oppose such encroachments on the part of the Government. This is not an exaggeration. Governments all over the world have tried to extent their powers by “driving a wedge in, and enlarging the breach”.

When someone says that the priest JR is a “pedophile”, it is usually objected that even if true, this is said with a malicious intent and JR has a right to privacy. Nothing can be more absurd than that. As an economist asked, “Is there really such a right to privacy? How can there be? How can there be a right to prevent Smith by force from disseminating knowledge which he possesses? Surely there can be no such right. Smith owns his own body and therefore has the property right to own the knowledge he has inside his head, including his knowledge about Jones. And therefore he has the corollary right to print and disseminate that knowledge. In short, as in the case of the “human right” to free speech, there is no such thing as a right to privacy except the right to protect one’s property from invasion.” It is usually considered that public figures don’t have a right to privacy, when others have. It should be obvious that such distinctions are highly arbitrary, have no scientific merit and hence should be rejected.

Even if the statement that JR is a “pedophile” is wrong, people have the right to spread such information. People own their own minds, and the property through which they disseminate such information. It can be objected that JR has a right to clear reputation. How could he have such a right? How could JR have an ownership claim over the subjective opinions in the minds of other people? It is obvious that he doesn’t have any rightful claim to such a right. People should be free to influence the minds and opinions of other people.

Legalizing libel would have good, benevolent effects on the society-especially the victims of libel. At present most people believe libel as they think if the claims were fast, the victim would have sued for libel. The present system is biased in favor of the rich and patient. If libel was legalized most people won’t believe libel, as anyone can write anything. In such a world, a libeler won’t have life and death control over his victims.

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