Defamation on the internet

Section 1(1) of the Defamation Act 1996 provides that:

“In defamation proceedings a person has a defence if he shows that –

(a) he was not the author, editor or publisher of the statement complained of,
(b) he took reasonable care in relation to its publication, and
(c) he did not know, and had no reason to believe, that what he did caused or contributed to the publication of a defamatory statement.”

So it is noted with interest that this week it was reported that the search engine Google is being sued for defamation. If successful it would have dramatic consequences for thousands of similar organisations or internet product providers which refine, channel and forward information. Google could be held liable for the content of 11.5 billion web pages.

The Defamation Act 1996 offers a defence to an internet product or service provider where it can claim it is unaware of defamatory or potentially defamatory material it is hosting or material arising from a search result. This protection is supported by the Electronic Commerce (EC) Directive, 2002. But the Defamation Act stipulates that once the company has been put on notice about a complaint it must take action to remove the material or block access.

In an email written by Google’s legal counsel Harjinder Obhi, the company argues: “Google is not responsible for the content of any result of a query which may be presented to a user of Google’s web search service. Google has absolutely no connection, control or ability to direct or influence the content of web pages which may be shown as links within any given set of search results.”

My view is that Google will be successful but it is a major warning to all those ISPs and sooner or later it may not be as fortunate.

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