Thursday, April 17, 2008

Internet Libel (not "liable") or Who's the Daddy(place)?

A story I meant to mention from last week - the Telegraph reported what is being called the largest ever Internet libel settlement in the UK, in relation to allegations on a site called "Dadsplace" about Gentoo, a housing development company.

"Gentoo Ltd, formerly the Sunderland Housing Group, became the subject of an attack by "a seriously defamatory, abusive and scurrilous anonymous website at", according to a statement read in court by the organisation's counsel, Hugh Tomlinson QC, before Mr Justice Eady today."

Eventually after some two years of malicious attacks downloaded "millions" of times, "John Finn, the owner of rival housing firm Pallion and a former local council candidate in Sunderland ...admitted his involvement, agreeing at the time to pay £125,000 towards Gentoo’s legal costs and a total of £21,000 in compensation.. he and Pallion [then] agreed to pay Mr Walls damages of £100,000 to settle his claim for libel and harassment."

The webmasters of Dadsplace were also made subject to injunctions not to repeat the offending statements but do not seem to have been sued for actual damages.

Now interestingly the solicitors for Gentoo - Olswangs - have commented publicly on why they think the settlement was so high. Factors seem to include:
- the length of the slandering campaign - two years
- the quantity of defamatory allegations - made almost daily
- the "extensive steps to publicise the Web site and their other publications" made by Dadspace - so the damage caused to the reputation was very extensive.

They also indicate how difficult it is to investigate a campaign of anonymous libel eg on a bulletin board or mailing list site, involving "months of painstaking investigation involving a combination of high-tech computer forensic work and old-fashioned evidence gathering".

Finally there are some interesting thoughts on Internet libel from Ashley Hurst the Olswang lawyer involved:

"This raises the question of whether reform is required to give the Internet the same badge of respectability that is enjoyed by other forms of media, including the press (regulated by the PCC) and television companies (regulated by Ofcom). However, the Internet is of course an entirely different medium and the answer is far from straightforward, particularly given the global reach of the Internet and the many different foreign laws that can apply. Would extending the remit of Ofcom or the PCC, or developing a voluntary code of conduct, make any difference?"

Pangloss gets an awful lot of requests to provide advice on Internet libel, though she is uncertain if this is because there is so much of it, or because her article on Net defamation (from 2000!!) comes up first in Google UK if you put in "Internet libel". (Bored students may be glad to know this piece will finally be updated in the 3rd edn of Law and the Internet upcoming.)

But most the people who contact her (unike Olswangs, perhaps, who charge :-) are not the alleged victims of libel, but are websites or hosts of some kind (often charitable or one-man outfits) who suddenly receive take down notices out the blue making vague threats of legal action, and then have no idea what their legal risks are. In an Internet culture where flaming is still fairly prevalent, these hosts often feel they have no alternative but to take down, even where they have no idea what if anything illegal or actionable has been said. This is not good for freedom of speech, democracy or indeed the morale of the voluntary/charitable sector. Sabre rattling and fear of legal risk , it seems, often overwhelms common sense and resilience.

Helpfully, the SCL website as well as providing the Olswang interview, also provides some hints to websites as to when they are liable for content posted on their site by third parties.

Pangloss doesn't disagree that a voluntary code relating to offensive content on websites might be of some use for the victims of malicious allegations (though how would it be policed? the PCC model, both of jurisdiction and sanctions, does not readily transfer, she feels, and that's before we come to the fact that web content is just as likely to be uploaded abroad as in the UK.)

But she also wonders if we do not also need to do more to protect individuals and small unincorporated associations who run or host the websites from random take down notices from anyone who is a wee bit disgruntled or wants to stifle perfectly reasonable criticism or debate.

At the very least it would be good to see a responsible body - the CABxs ? ISPA? BERR? - providing some plain language guidance on line, perhaps an advice hotline, and perhaps even an adaptable form response to takedown notices which do not meet the requirements of regulation 22 of the ECD regulations. Some take down notices do not even sometims specify what ( or where) the alleged libel IS. (The title of this piece comes from one just like this Pangloss saw yesterday - where the aggrieved sender of the take down notice knew so little he had spelt "libel" as "liable".)

As`my gift to the world Pangloss may post her own typical response letter tomorrow. After I've checked it's in no way libellous:)

1 comment:

Michael Roberts of Rexxfield and Mile2 said...

Thanks panGloss, this is a very refreshing posting. So often the focus is on what can be legally "gotten away with" with respect to pushing the boundaries of Internet libel. I enjoy the way you touched on the fact that there is a human cost to Internet libel and suggested that there needs to be relief for the victims.

As an Internet libel victim myself, I can declare with some authority that the effects of online smear campaigns can be a debilitating source of anguish for the victims. In fact, I have also noticed personally and through others who I am helping, that people who have not experienced this phenomena simply can't relate to how awful it is.

Regards, Michael Roberts. Internet libel victim's advocate.