Yesterday I went along to the Science Online Conference at the Royal Institution.
Somehow I had been put down as a speaker in a joint session with the wonderful Dr Petra Boynton. This session would look at the ethics (Petra) and legalities (me) of blogging.
I was not looking forward to this.
I loathe public speaking (this is regardless of whether I am actually any good at it), but the ethics and law of blogging is an important issue, and with recent cases such as Night Jack and Liskula Cohen, it seemed useful that someone report on the current situation and its possible implications.
However, what made it worse for me was that amongst those attending were some of the greatest science and skeptic bloggers: the legendary David Colquhoun, the highly influential Andy Lewis of Quackometer , the incredibly insightful Dr Aust, Frank Swain - the the SciencePunk himself, and so on.
It was even rumoured that the majestic Gimpy was there, a bad science blogger rated as a first rate investigative writer by even broadsheet journalists.
What could possibly go wrong in front of such luminaries?
But if one is going to have to go through the ordeal of public speaking, one may as well do it in the world famous Royal Institution Lecture Theatre, which of course hosts the world famous Christmas Lectures for children.
This would be a particular honour, as for different reasons nether Petra nor I could reasonably expect to be invited to give the Christmas Lectures.
Our session was a closed one. This meant that there was no "Second Life" stream and attendees were asked not to do live blogging. This is not unusual when lawyers and others give talks on liability issues. Real people can actually rely on what seems to be advice in practical and difficult situations, and so unless there are appropriate disclaimers and controls, it can be difficult for certain legal issues to be discussed in meetings (or in print).
Our session was also the first one of the day. This was a last minute switch. The "Second Life" stream was not working and so the organisers thought ethics and law would be a splendid way to start the morning session.
So half-asleep and ridden with caffeine, and armed only with two science O-Levels (both grade 'C') from 1987, I looked up in this famed and imposing scientific lecture theatre and saw scores of science bloggers looking down at me. Well, the ones who were not perched behind their Apple Mac laptops anyway, each Apple logo seeming to me at that moment as scary as a street gang emblem.
And then they started Twittering.
I was not aware of this at the time, thankfully, as I would have simply frozen, and mumbled all the more. But these invisible messages were darting around the lecture theatre from laptop to laptop, like a horrible cyberspace version of Hitchcock's The Birds.
As requested, the Twittering was not about the content of the talk. I am grateful to each attendee there for helping me out on that.
But the course and success of the talk can perhaps be gauged by some of the Twitters made.
@gimpyblog: @jackofkent has lawyers hair
@Enroweb: starting the conference with legal aspects of blogging is definitely a party crasher
@Skyponderer replies to a curious absentee: You're not missing much
Others were kinder and more polite, perhaps feeling sorry for the Arts graduate in their midst.
Fortunately, Petra is an amazing speaker and covered the ethics side with her characteristic wisdom and humanity, and so I think the session went well overall. And the inherent interest in the legal side of blogging meant that the attention of attendees did not wander too much.
The key point which I wanted to get across was that to put things into the public domain - via blogs, message boards, Twittering or whatever - is to publish (to "public") those things.
And that, in the view of the law, being the publisher means one is creating exposure to liability in civil law (libel, copyright, confidentiality, and privacy) and even criminal law (contempt of court, consumer protection) which ten years ago and before would have been decisions more for editors and publishers, rather than the author.
@phnk: Jack's conclusion could be "you need a good lawyer to blog, and I happen to know one"
However, I would prefer a very different conclusion to be drawn.
One does not really need to be or have a good lawyer to blog or otherwise self-publish on the internet, one just needs to be as sensible, considered and responsible as one would be writing in any other medium.
This should not be a problem.
For - as Ben Goldacre said in describing the science bloggers who destroyed the plethora of "evidence" put forward by the now discredited British Chiropractic Association in their misconceived libel case against Simon Singh - British science bloggers do many things very, very well indeed.