Dr. Nicholas Weaver is an expert on network security issues. The media frequently seeks him out for input on stories involving the intersection of criminal justice and computer security, like Silk Road and leak investigations. Fair disclosure: he's also an online friend and an expert on one of my cases.
SlashGear is an also-ran tech site that rewrites stories badly.
Case in point: SlashGear took this story from Krebs On Security about criminal charges against Bitcoin traders in Florida. Dr. Weaver was quoted as an expert in that story:
Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) and at the University of California, Berkeley and keen follower of Bitcoin-related news, said he is unaware of another case in which state law has been used against a Bitcoin vendor. According to Weaver, the Florida case is significant because localbitcoins.com is among the last remaining places that Americans can use to purchase Bitcoins anonymously.
“The biggest problem that Bitcoin faces is actually self-imposed, because it’s always hard to buy Bitcoins,” Weaver said. “The reason is that Bitcoin transactions are irreversible, and therefore any purchase of Bitcoins must be made with something irreversible — namely cash. And that means you either have to wait several days for the wire transfer or bank transfer to go through, or if you want to buy them quickly you pay with cash through a site like localbitcoins.com.”
But when Bittany Hillen penned an awkwardly-worded and uninformative summary of the story for SlashGear, she turned Dr. Weaver from a quoted expert to a criminal defendant:
Yesterday, Florida law enforcement announced the arrests and criminal charges against three individuals under anti-money laundering laws: Michell Abner Espinoza, Pascal Reid, and Nicholas Weaver.
Dr. Weaver captured a screenshot in case SlashGear tries to memory-hole this. He should feel happy he didn't give a quote about the Woody Allen case, I guess.
Dr. Weaver isn't the suing type. But, hypothetically, could he sue for defamation? Sure.
publication of a statement of fact
that is false,
has a natural tendency to injure or which causes "special damage," and
the defendant's fault in publishing the statement amounted to at least negligence.
Here, SlashGear and Hillen published a false statement of fact about Dr. Weaver — that he had been charged with a crime. The publication was unprivileged, meaning that it was not immunized from liability by statute (for instance, things you say as a witness in court, or in pleadings filed in court, are generally privileged from liability). Accusing some of being charged with a crime is the sort of thing that has a natural tendency to injure, which is why it is often categorizes as "libel per se" — which merely means that the plaintiff doesn't have to prove that he or she suffered damage to reputation, and gets at least nominal damages without such proof.1 Dr. Weaver probably couldn't prove actual or special damages to his reputation — it's doubtful that anyone gives a shit what a clumsy SlashGear rewrite says. But he could get at least nominal damages because of the nature of the accusation.
That leaves us with the question of fault. As I explained in the context of the Crystal Cox case, at least if the issue being discussed is a public one, a defamation claim always requires proof of some level of fault on the part of the defendant. The level of fault depends on whether the plaintiff is a mere private figure (in which case the plaintiff may only need to prove that the defendant got the story wrong out of negligence) or a public figure (in which case the plaintiff would need to prove actual malice, meaning knowledge that the story was false or reckless disregard to its truth or falsity.) There are complexities and gradations; people can be public figures for limited purposes.
Here, the transformation of Dr. Weaver from respected expert to criminal defendant is a result of an incompetent rewrite of a news story. That's at least negligence. If Dr. Weaver is treated as a private figure he would prevail. But since he's frequently quoted in the news on stories like this, he may well be treated as a limited purpose public figure in the context of coverage of network security issues in the news. So the question is probably whether an incompetent rewrite of a story rises to the level of reckless disregard of the truth as required by the actual malice standard. The answer is almost certainly not. "Reckless disregard" requires more than incompetence; it requires conscious disregard of doubt. Here there's no indication that anyone consciously regarded or disregarded anything.
So: Dr. Weaver probably can't prove the requisite fault against SlashGear and Hillen, even if he wanted to. They live to promote shitty rewrites another day. Fortunately for Dr. Weaver it's difficult to imagine anyone taking SlashGear seriously enough for their incompetence to hurt his reputation.
Remember: just because something is written in a "story" by a "journalist" on a well-trafficked website, that doesn't mean it's anything other than incompetent drivel.
Edited to add SlashGear corrected the story to remove the reference to Dr. Weaver as a defendant, but as of this writing has not offered any retraction or apology. Classy.
- Some people misunderstand this category and treat "libel per se" as meaning "I don't have to prove this is false or that you were at fault." That's not what it means. It reduces the burden of proving damages, not the burden of proving falsity or culpability. ▲