In a world where thousands of personal opinions and comments are posted online every second, who is responsible for what is posted? The law in this area has recently become a little clearer says Shaun Underhill, a Partner at Winchester firm Shentons Solicitors.
In a ruling with important implications for the future policing of the internet, the Court of Appeal has decided that there are circumstances in which Google Inc. could be successfully sued for defamation in respect of libellous statements posted by members of the public on its popular blogging site.
The court upheld Google’s arguments that its Blogger.com site is the equivalent of a blank and purely passive wall and that the company cannot, in general, be held responsible in law, either as a primary or secondary publisher, for what people write on it.
However, Shaun points out that the company and other providers of blog sites and online forums will have to sit up and take notice after the court ruled that, once they receive complaints of defamation, they are under a duty to take down offending posts within a reasonable time and can be sued for damages if they do not act quickly enough. The court noted that it might properly be inferred from any unreasonable delay in removing offending material that a provider had associated itself, or made itself responsible for, a defamatory statement as a publisher.
A law student and former election candidate had sued Google after he was vilified by a series of entirely false comments posted on Blogger.com. His case was struck out at first instance and, in dismissing his appeal, the court ruled that his arguments that Google should be viewed as a primary publisher were misplaced. Blogger.com operated as a ‘facilitator’ enabling members of the public to express their views, and Google could not be compared to an author or editor of a libellous article. The court was also very doubtful that Google could be seen as a secondary publisher in the way that a distributor of offending material might be.
The libellous posts had been removed from Blogger.com after the claimant lodged a complaint and, although he argued that Google had not done that quickly enough, the court ruled that, if his libel claim went to trial, ‘the game would not be worth the candle’. During the very brief period in which Google could conceivably have been held liable, it was highly improbable that any significant number of readers would have seen the comments prior to their removal.
Shaun Underhill comments “If anyone has been the subject of false comments on any public online forum, they are advised to contact the site immediately to complain and ask for the comments to be removed. Depending on the circumstances, there may be grounds for suing the writer of the comments for libel or defamation. Contact Shentons if you would like any advice on this area of law”.