Congress needs to pass anti-SLAPP legislation

Perhaps you've read of the Michigan college student who responded to his car being towed -- unfairly, in his mind -- by posting a Facebook page entitled "Kalamamazoo Residents against T&J Towing." It seems he wasn't the only one tired of getting an indiscriminate hook from T&J and his protest soon attracted hundreds of like-minded individuals who also posted unkind words about the company.

And that ruckus attracted a lawsuit by T&J, which figured the best way to squelch such criticism was to intimidate its leader into silence. This legal tactic has had a name that pre-dates the Internet: strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP.

The good news is that the publicity surrounding this case may help motivate lawmakers in Washington to finally pass a federal law that will protect free-speech rights -- online and off -- from unmerited legal retaliation by deep-pocketed businesses. The need for such legislation becomes clearer by the day.

From a New York Times story examining SLAPP suits last week: "Web sites like Facebook, Twitter and Yelp have given individuals a global platform on which to air their grievances with companies. But legal experts say the soaring popularity of such sites has also given rise to more cases … in which a business sues an individual for posting critical comments online. … The towing company's lawyer said that it was justified in removing (the) car because the permit was not visible, and that the Facebook page was costing it business and had unfairly damaged its reputation."

Who knows what the truth is about the location of the parking sticker … and who cares? After all, if your right to take a complaint public hinges on first having absolute certainty that you are correct, well, who among us (not protected by a corporate legal department) will be willing to take that risk? Big business should be prohibited from suing critics into silence absent clear-cut evidence of fabrication and malice.

A number of states already have laws that attempt to deter this type of legal intimidation, but a federal version is necessary given the nature of the Internet and this country's well-established sue-first mentality.

This will be a classic test for a Congress that all too routinely aligns itself business interests.

Reader helps us understand a zettabyte

A few weeks ago we tried and failed to place into its proper context the scale of a zettabyte -- 1 trillion gigabytes, or a 1 followed by 21 zeroes. EMC had offered a number of comparisons, the densest of which went like this: "707 trillion copies of the more than 2,000-page U.S. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act signed into Law in March 2010. Stacked end to end, the documents would stretch from Earth to Pluto and back 16 times or cover every inch of the United States in paper 3 feet deep."

And at that point I broke out the surrender flag.

Others, however, do not give up so easily, witness reader Ted Zeh, who in an e-mail to me suggests this elegant comparison: "A zettabyte is about 1/5th of a Google."


Have something to say? The address is … and try to keep it under a zettabyte.

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This story, "Congress needs to pass anti-SLAPP legislation" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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