Ever since the Internet has been part of our daily lives, there have been the inevitable comparisons to the Wild, Wild West.
For some, that description evokes a place of utter bedlam, where lawlessness rules and anything goes. Porn sites? Check. Pro-adultery dating sites? Check. Snuff videos? Sure.
Children being lured for untoward purposes. Unsuspecting seniors being ripped off. Suicidal people being coaxed and coached into taking their own lives. Terrorist manifestos being read aloud. Cyber-cults trying to recruit the easily led. Cheap drugs being hawked.
They're all out there, and other, more bizarre things my mind can't even conjure up.
That aspect of the Internet is like a rapidly expanding freak show - a virtual Sodom and Gomorrah unhampered by moral codes or ethical concerns.
But it's kind of like buying illegal drugs. "Oh, it's no trouble to get drugs," people will say.
"They can be had on any street corner."
Yes, but you have to want them.
Cyberspace is like that. If all you want is to check the long-range forecast, join Oprah's fan club and read inspirational poetry, you can do that without ever venturing into the web's seedier corners.
And those who see the Wild, Wild West description as a positive one will be sure to point that out. It's all about individual freedom - the freedom to make a buck or save a buck; to read and view and listen to content unfettered by someone else's determination of what is acceptable; to say whatever you want.
But should that freedom be absolute, with no restriction?
Should you be allowed to opine that a politician is corrupt or that your classmate is a skank or that a scientist made false claims or that your priest is a pervert?
We're beginning to find out.
The Canadian Newspaper Association regularly publishes The Press and The Courts - a roundup of recent Canadian cases involving the media and the law. The latest edition is almost totally devoted to cyberspace issues - a good indication of how it is still a new frontier in terms of hammering out how the law applies there.
In one court decision in April, Supreme Court Justice Heather Robertson ruled that the names of anonymous online commenters would have to be disclosed to firefighters who felt they were libelled by the comments posted on a media website.
The court doesn't "condone the conduct of anonymous Internet users who make defamatory comments," Robertson noted. "They, like other people, have to be accountable for their actions."
In another case in April, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Kelleher dismissed a matter where a former Green Party manager claimed he was defamed when a Canadian website published a link to two defamatory American sites. The judge concluded that posting a link does not constitute republishing the scurrilous statements.
In a case that's still unfolding in Nova Scotia, a 15-year-old girl is claiming she was bullied and defamed on Facebook, and her lawyer is appealing a judge's decision to reject her family's application for a publication ban on her name. They argue that identifying the girl would only revictimize her. That case is still before the courts.
In our own province last year, a man's lawsuit stemming from two car accidents was stymied when photos of him on Facebook contradicted what he claimed were the extent of his injuries.
"Without this evidence, I would have been left with a very different impression of (his) social life," provincial Supreme Court Justice James Adams concluded.
One to watch
And in what promises to be a case closely watched by media organizations throughout the country, a renowned climate scientist is suing The National Post for what he calls "grossly irresponsible falsehoods" in articles it published online between December 2009 and February 2010.
"If I sit back and do nothing to clear my name, these libels will stay on the Internet forever," the University of Victoria's Andrew Weaver told the U.K. Guardian in April. "They'll poison the factual record, misleading people who are looking for reliable scientific information about global warming."
What makes Weaver's case unusual is that he not only wants The National Post to remove the articles from its website, but from anywhere else they might appear on the Internet.
If he wins his suit, it could have huge ramifications.
"In effect, he is trying to say newspapers or the mainstream media suddenly now have to become responsible because of any blogger somewhere in the world who chooses to copy and paste (a story) onto their website," Paul Schabas, a past-president of the Canadian media lawyers' association, told The Canadian Press.
"How can the media police the Internet?"
And what if the lawsuit's fallout is even broader than that? How about if every time you choose to share a story from a media website using a tool like Blogger or My Space or Google, you potentially open yourself up to legal action if the story turns out to have contained defamatory content?
It may never come to that, of course.
But I guess if cyberspace is the Wild, Wild West, it's only natural that people who feel wronged will come out with guns blazing.
Pam Frampton, The Telegram's story editor, welcomes comments by e-mail:
firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.thetelegram.com. Pam writes a food blog at wininganddiningwithpam.blogspot.com.