Be careful what you post online. You could get sued.

In March 2008, Shellee Hale of Bellevue, Wash., posted in several online forums about a hacker attack on a company that makes software used to track sales for adult-entertainment Web sites. She claimed that the personal information of the sites' customers was compromised.

About three months later, the software company — which contends that no consumer data were compromised — sued Hale in state court in New Jersey, accusing her of embarking "on a campaign to defame and malign the plaintiffs" in chat-room posts.

In her legal response, Hale, 46, claims she is covered by so-called shield laws that protect reporters from suits, because she was acting as a journalist and was investigating the hacker attack while researching a story on adult-oriented spam.

Bloggers are increasingly getting sued or threatened with legal action for everything from defamation to invasion of privacy to copyright infringement. In 2007 — the most recent data available — 106 civil lawsuits against bloggers and others in social networks and online forums were tallied by the Citizen Media Law Project at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, up from just 12 in 2003. There have been about $17.4 million in trial awards against bloggers to date, according to the Media Law Resource Center in New York, a nonprofit clearinghouse that tracks free-speech cases.

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