On any given day, messages are posted on online chat site IceRed.com that would almost certainly result in a lawsuit if any traditional media outlet repeated them. People are accused of all manner of crimes and misadventures, real or fabricated. In one forum, for example, a group of people claiming to be nurses at a local hospital gossip about the alleged sexual dalliances of a physician who is identified by name. Other discussions revolve around the incompetence and wrongdoing of everyone from celebrities to ex-lovers. That IceRed has not been buried in a pile of lawsuits is due to a combination of factors, the most significant of which is that people are generally ignorant of their rights when it comes to being libelled. Libel law protects people equally online and offline, but there is a perception that because something happens on the Internet, a different set of rules apply, said Kate Fitzgerald, an Australia-based lawyer who deals with online law. IceRed has been sued only once for allegedly defamatory statements made on the site. In that case, online trade-show services provider E-Silkroad Holdings alleged about a dozen libellous messages appeared on IceRed between October 2000 and March last year, when it was listed on the Growth Enterprise Market. The company claimed its share price was adversely affected by what was said. After a change in management at E-Silkroad, the case stalled in its preliminary stages and company officials would not return messages. IceRed chief executive Tim Lam would say only the case was behind him. If the case had proceeded it could have set an important precedent. There has never been an Internet libel case heard in Hong Kong courts, and the jury is out on how freedom of speech and the new legal terrain presented by the Internet would be balanced against the right to protection from defamation. Most of the significant legal precedents regarding the Internet have been set in the United States, where courts have established safe harbours for Web sites to protect them from libel claims. Proponents of free speech on the Internet often point to the US example as the route Hong Kong legislators should follow. But lawyers say the American cases may have created a false sense of security and spread disinformation, as Hong Kong law does not provide the same liberal protection of free speech that the American constitution offers. 'There is an urban myth on the Internet that it is a safe place to say what you want,' said Peter Waters, a lawyer with Arculli and Associates. 'The American defamation law is imbued with the constitutional right to free speech that allows people to engage in all sorts of debate about public figures . . . we have absolutely no concept of that in our law.' Rob Deans, a lawyer with Bird and Bird in Hong Kong, said that under common law, on which the Hong Kong system is based, Internet site operators are protected as 'innocent disseminators of information.' The provision allows that firms such as IceRed cannot be held accountable for what is posted on their site due to the instantaneous nature of the Internet. The argument is that, like a telephone company, a Web site operator cannot monitor everything that its customers are up to. Key to the defence is that the Web sites can show they did not know libellous material was being posted, and that when such material is brought to their attention, it is promptly removed. But IceRed may be on thin ice with this defence due to the amount of abusive posting going on. Ms Fitzgerald said that a plaintiff in a libel case could argue that IceRed's management should have been aware of the amount of potentially libellous material being posted, and should have taken pro-active steps to prevent or remove it. IceRed does not filter messages and will remove a post only when asked to do so. As Hong Kong's favourite online forum for salacious gossip, another of IceRed's problems is its growing success. The site is not a dark, unnoticed corner of the Internet any longer. It receives up to 10,000 messages a day or about one every 10 seconds. Monthly page views top 50 million, giving IceRed an audience most local Web sites can only dream of reaching. Mr Lam said he had seen a growing amount of interest and anger from Hong Kong's business and social elite over what is being said about them. 'Our success has been a double-edged sword. As IceRed becomes more popular, more and more senior managers are paying attention to what gets posted here about them and about their companies. Some companies take a hands-off approach, and others see it as a threat that they want dealt with,' he said. IceRed gets about 100 requests every day to delete offensive messages. There are also frequent demands for the identity of users, information IceRed will not hand over without a court order. There have been two cases where people have successfully forced IceRed to disclose information and a third is pending, but the court orders have yielded information that was essentially useless. Under its current system IceRed records only the Internet Protocol address of the computer from where a posting is made. If a user takes the most basic precautions, such as using a public terminal, there is no practical way of finding out who they are. That leaves only IceRed as the focal point of the aggrieved person's fury, a fact that has not escaped Mr Lam's attention. To protect itself from the legal threat, IceRed plans to force its users to register with their names and contact information before they post. The new registration system will help deflect the anger back to the poster, but it will not be fool-proof. The verification system will require only a functioning email address, so users can still avoid giving their real identities by registering with an anonymous service such as hotmail. Mr Lam agreed the system still had shortcomings, but said it would make it more difficult for people to create trouble: 'It's a deterrent. There is no foolproof way to identify a user. Anyone who is intent on using the Internet for illegal purposes will find a way to do it.' Not everyone is in favour of reducing the amount of anonymity people can exercise online. Investment commentator David Webb, who runs Webb-site.com, said allowing people to post anonymously on sites such as IceRed allowed whistle-blowers to reveal misbehaviour in corporations and government without fear of retaliation. 'In general I've been a proponent of free speech, whether it's two people talking in the park or a discussion in an online chat room. There is a value to the exchange of information and with that you have to take the good with the bad,' he said. Ironically, it would be understandable if Mr Webb were first in line to sue IceRed. He has been the target of bitter personal attacks on the site, undoubtedly in an effort to discredit his often pointed observations on Hong Kong's corporate community. 'I think we have to put up with that behaviour and learn not to take it too seriously,' he said. But Mr Lam is not taking any chances. 'People shouldn't think they can go on the Internet and get away with breaking the law. At IceRed we are law-abiding citizens and we are not going to let our users flout the law,' he said.