A U.S.-based group has worked to bring liability insurance within reach of average bloggers, highlighting the risks that an increasing number of do-it-yourself publishers face when they unleash their thoughts on the Internet.

The non-profit Media Bloggers Association has announced an insurance policy designed to protect bloggers who face threats of libel lawsuits, copyright claims, invasion of privacy accusations and other legal woes.

“How do we have this idea of citizen media — which we think is this transformative and good for society — survive and thrive in the face of a hostile legal environment?” says the association’s president, Robert Cox.

The answer, says Cox, is to ensure bloggers know their rights — and responsibilities — under the law, and then make sure they’re protected if they still end up facing threats of legal action.

“If that happens, you make it more likely that blogging or social media will thrive and grow.”

Premiums for the policy, underwritten by Axis Insurance, start at about $500 and increase depending on a list of risk factors.

For example, bloggers writing about local government or the pharmaceutical industry will have higher premiums than those writing movie reviews or just musing about their day.

The policy includes a $2,500 deductible and covers up to $100,000 per claim.

Axis offers a similar policy in Canada called CyberLiability, with premiums starting at $2,500 (Canadian dollars). Americans get the cheaper rate if they pass the association’s media law course.

Cox says there’s been lots of interest from Canadian bloggers since his association’s plan was launched a few weeks ago.

“Because of Google and other software out there, if a blogger thinks they’re a needle in a haystack, they should realize that the plaintiffs have big magnets,” he says.

“And there’s this chilling effect. And it’s not only the blogger that gets the $25-million lawsuit, everybody who reads about that lawsuit says, ‘Whoa, I didn’t get into it for this,’ and they start to back off.”

There have been several notable cases involving Canadian blogs and personal Web sites.

Earlier this year, a former Canadian Union of Postal Workers president faced threats of a libel lawsuit after a blog post about Canada Post president Moya Greene. The post was removed, and the threats were dropped.

Late last year, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach threatened to sue a blogger who bought the rights to the Internet domain edstelmach.ca and linked it to a blog that is often critical of the premier.

The president of Steelback Brewery filed a $2-million libel lawsuit against an Ottawa sports blogger last year after an uncomplimentary posting about him. The lawsuit was dropped after blogger Neate Sager apologized.

An Ontario woman was threatened with a $2-million lawsuit after her personal website accused a developer of breaking environmental and labour laws. The website was removed as part of an out-of-court settlement.

Vancouver media lawyer Michael Skene says bloggers face the same risks as any other publisher.

“The Internet is no different than any other form of communication — bloggers might think that’s the case (that they’re not at risk), but legally it’s not,” says Skene.

“The safest thing for a blogger to do is not just tell the truth, but only to tell what he or she can prove is true, which is often a big gap.”

However, Skene says it’s unlikely a large corporation would pursue a libel lawsuit all the way to trial and try collecting a judgment if the blogger is just someone posting from their basement with no real assets.

For that reason, he says he’s not sure how useful such liability insurance, with such a high deductible, would be for the average, obscure blogger.

“I would think that the only people interested in buying blogging insurance would be those for whom blogging is an economic activity,” he says.

“They’ve got some interest in maintaining their blog and they probably have a high readership and maybe they’re talking about controversial topics, so maybe there’s a risk of being sued.

“That said, I would think that a lot of insurers would be wary about who they’d issue the blogging insurance to. If I’m a really careful blogger, what do I need the insurance for?”

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