Last November I had the opportunity to attend an event organised by the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin, which is facilitating some fascinating research on global internet policy issues across different areas of law, governance and business.
The Institute hosts an online journal, the Internet Policy Review, which is exactly the type of open access publication I think universities should be cultivating, with an efficient and thorough peer review process.
They kindly published my article this week, which discusses the nuances of the chilling effect and presents some of the data from my surveys conducted during 2013, among bloggers and hyperlocal publishers.
I’m very grateful to all the participants in my survey who informed this article and my wider doctoral research. I am thinking about publishing the data in due course on this blog in a different format (perhaps separate from the analysis). I would welcome any thoughts and suggestions.
Thanks to the IPR and to Julian Staben, a fellow chilling effects researcher, for the original invitation to Berlin (one research highlight of that trip was discovering that there is no simple translation for the ‘chilling effect’ in German).
A few of the key points from the IPR article, which can be read in full here, are set out below:
The article presents findings from online surveys among over 200 journalists and ‘hyperlocal’ and community news bloggers in England and Wales, which explored their legal resources and support, the impact of libel and privacy on their work, direct legal experiences (such as receipt of a threatening letter), and their overall perception of the chilling effect over a five year period (2008-12).
- The surveys expose a spectrum of interpretations; at one end respondents appear unaffected by libel because of their ignorance and lack of awareness of the potential risks; at the other there is even evidence of excessive self-censorship because of their legal knowledge and experience
- In the general survey, under 10% of respondents had access to legal advice for their own publication or website, compared to just under half of the journalists and online writers contributing to third party publications. Only a very small number have media law insurance for their own publication, either a personal blog or more substantial operation: 3% in both general and hyperlocal groups
- Broadly speaking, hyperlocals seemed less affected by legal issues than respondents in the general sample and were more likely to say that they don’t ever change or abandon stories because of libel and privacy
- The surveys suggest that the majority of encounters with defamation and privacy law take place outside the courts, with few formally recorded legal actions brought against publishers
- The hyperlocal sample indicated that unofficial claims were being resolved in ways that did not involve court. Of the small minority that reported libel threats, most were not pursued further by the complainant
- The data indicates that the number of journalists and bloggers changing or abandoning material is greater than the number actually receiving threats of legal action, with a small minority experiencing a formal claim issued in court
- There is no one ‘chilling effect’. Despite its generalised use in relation to libel in media and judicial discourse, it clearly means different things to different people. While the chilling effect is very real to some writers, they interpret it in different ways, offering definitions based on variable components, such as access to resources, legal knowledge and personal experience
The article offers suggestions for future research and policy initiatives. There is, for example, scope for further systematic and comparative research to develop this analysis of the chilling effect, especially in a globalised media environment. In regards to policy development, there is a need for innovative public legal education and training initiatives for members of the public and online writers; and the development of more proportionate and relevant libel and privacy dispute resolution methods for small and individual publishers.