The San Francisco Chronicle writes,

The Web 2.0 movement, which ushered in an interactive Internet, sought to put power in the hands of the people by tapping the so-called wisdom of the crowds to change the world – and to keep such a digital democracy in check.

A decade later, as defamation lawsuits have begun to mount, some are questioning the wisdom of the crowds, and wondering if it hasn’t turned into mob rule.

"I don’t know why this has taken so long," said Andrew Keen, author of a controversial book, "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture." "The Internet is a culture of rights rather than responsibilities. We have no coherent theory of digital responsibility. The issue has broken through, broken out of Silicon Valley – now it affects real people with real reputations to defend."

I guess I’m supposed to be impressed by the "rights" and "responsibilities" distinction. I’m not. Every legal "right" is an enforceable legal "responsibility" upon another.

Take the First Amendment. The right to free speech imposes on the government the responsibility — whether the government wants it or not — to let you speak freely.

But back to the subject at hand, defamation law:

Meanwhile, the review site Yelp, based in San Francisco, has found itself in the crosshairs of the free e-speech debate.

Yvonne Wong, a pediatric dentist in Foster City, recently sued Los Altos couple Tai Jing and Jia Ma after they criticized her treatment of their son in a posting on Yelp. They questioned her use of laughing gas and said they were angry she had used fillings containing mercury.

Wong’s lawyer, Marc TerBeek of Oakland, said the review is false, and Yelp has since taken it down.

That reminds me of a Pennsylvania case, a lawsuit brought by another physician who felt he had been slandered with regard to his methods:

There were four counts in the declaration.

1st count. "He, (the plaintiff,) is not a physician, but a two-penny bleeder."

2d count. "He, (the plaintiff,) was called to a man near the new bridge, who had injured his leg, and by his (plaintiff’s) bad treatment the man must have been lame for life had not I, (defendant, Dr. Small,) been called to him."

3d count. "Foster had given a child stuff to butcher it."

4th count. "He, (the plaintiff,) had butchered a child."

That case was Foster v. Small, 3 Whart. 138 (Pa. 1838)(upholding directed verdict for defendant because "Now though words which impute professional ignorance are certainly actionable, yet to say of a physician that he is a two-penny bleeder, imputes not want of professional skill, but want of professional dignity manifested by a petty attention to the humbler employments of the art. They are, in fact, words of mere contempt.").

Did you catch the year? That virtually identical doctor-slander case was decided one-hundred and seventy-one years ago, long enough ago that calling a doctor a "bleeder" — one who treated by bleeding the patient — was a sufficiently accepted practice that it wasn’t defamatory to accuse a doctor of being a "bleeder."

Defamation — whether written ("libel") or spoken ("slander") — is among the oldest claims recognized by the legal system, dating back to ancient Rome and likely before.

The law isn’t changing. People aren’t changing. Only one thing is changing: people are more connected.

Here’s an example. Based on a suggestion from Robert Scoble, whom I’ve never met, I search Friendfeed for "defamation" posts (with 5 comments and 5 "likes") and find a Twitter post (with about 50 comment and 50 "likes") from Mona L, who I’ve never met, that says:

“Should you be held accountable for what you publish online? – Cnet "Yelp user faces lawsuit over negative review"

The link is to a story on a different Yelp defamation suit. We don’t even have to consider the story to see how powerful the internet is at spreading commentary — the tweet and the Friendfeed post alone were viewed by hundreds, more likely thousands, of people.

With every single off-the-cuff comment about that story effectively permanent, broadcast-worldwide, and easily accessible world-wide.

But that’s it. People haven’t become more disgruntled with one another, nor more prone (or able) to sue, nor have we suddenly left a responsible and respect world for "mob rule." The allegedly defamatory comments just spread faster, travel farther and last longer.