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The same laws that apply to newsprint apply to online media as well. But, enforcing those laws is another issue, one that is relatively new to the media world. Media lawyers argue that tracing the source of the rumor on the Internet is much more complicated then suing a newspaper. If the person responsible for the rumor is found, it is unlikely that that person will have the money to counter the libel suit anyway.

"You can end up chasing shadows," says Alisdair Pepper, a leading media lawyer of Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners. "You might close down one site, only to discover there are half-a-dozen mirror sites already repeating the same material. You cannot sue the world."

"Not only can you not sue the world, but you can't enforce libel laws that aren't universally applicable. An additional problem with prosecuting Internet libel cases deals with the fact that not all countries practice the same laws. For instance, Americans are more liberal in their defense of the right to freedom of speech compared to many other countries throughout the world.

Just because the odds are against the law doesn't mean the battle is will not be fought. A shining example is the case against Matt Drudge, a former gift-shop manager from Washington DC who ran an Internet political gossip newsletter from his Los Angeles apartment. "That's what's great about this medium," he wrote. "There is no editor to say 'no.'" His legions of followers tipped him off to thousands of tidbits of information daily, including politicians ready to damage the reputations of their opponents.

His defining moment occurred in 1998 as he released the revelation, but at that point still a rumor stating that a White House Intern carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States.

Fortunately for Drudge, this bit of news was in fact truthful. Drudge wasn't as lucky however in a case involving senior White House adviser Sidney Blumenthal and his "spousal-abuse past." Although Drudge, who was tipped off by top GOP operatives, immediately pulled the story after he learned that the "court records" he cited failed to exist, he was faced with a $30 million lawsuit.

Surprisingly, Drudge was bombarded with proprietors of free speech who donated money to pay for his legal bills. The case turned against Blumenthal, who was forced to not only drop the case but also pay $2,500 in fees.

--Sources:

Rebecca Fowler: "Cyber scandal: The Perfect Rumour. The Observer. December 1, 2002

Steven Levy." New Media's Dark Star. Newsweek. February, 16, 1998.

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