The internet - libel and privacy issues

Libel and privacy issues on the internet should not really be of added concern to the young journalist. The rules that govern what is, or what is not safe to publish in newspapers and radio and television programmes apply in just the same way to stuff published on the internet.

The people who really have to be careful are the publishers of websites which invite the public to make comments under the cloak of anonymity and those whistle-blowers who blog in what they believe to be the public interest.

Bloggers unmasked

As far as libel is concerned court orders obliging websites to disclose the identity of users posting anonymous defamatory remarks began in 2001. Six years later three Sheffield Wednesday fans whose postings on a website alleged that the clubs directors were guilty of greed, selfishness, untrustworthiness and dishonest behaviour were ordered to be unmasked so that the directors could sue them for libel.

Sheffield Wednesday's solicitor said: "There seem to be quite a lot of websites that are using their anonymity to make comments about people and think that there shouldn't be any liability for it. But the internet is no different to any other place of publication, and if somebody is making defamatory comments about people then they should be held responsible for it. What these cases do is just confirm that's the law - the law applies to the internet as much as it does to anything else."

Warning to abusive bloggers as judge tells site to reveal names | Technology | The Guardian

It should not be forgotten that the publishers of the fan's website in the Sheffield Wednesday case were just as liable to an action for libel as the authors of the defamatory postings. But, in another case, the search engine Google was ruled not to be a publisher merely a "facilitator" and therefore not liable. In the same way ISPs are protected as long as they remove defamatory statements from their service as soon as they are brought to their attention.

Google not liable for defamation in search results, rules high court | Media |

In the first case dealing with the privacy of internet bloggers the High Court ruled that they had no "reasonable expectation" of anonymity for the blogger because blogging was essentially a public rather than a private activity. The case concerned a detective whose NightJack blogs gave a behind the scenes insight into policing including strong views on social and political issues.The detective had sought an injunction unnder privacy rules to stop The Times revealing his identity.Mr Justice Eady said that even if the blogger could have claimed he had a right to anonymity, the judge would have ruled against him on public interest grounds

Ruling on NightJack author Richard Horton kills blogger anonymity - Times Online


'Not worth the wick'

An Appeal Court ruling was significant for online publishers as it could be used to prevent libel actions brought over statements whose circulation has been minimal. The internet libel action, Jameel v Dow Jones, was struck out on the basis that, even if it was successful, damages would be minimal and would be out of proportion to the costs and court time that would be run up. Dow Jones, the publishers of the Wall Street Journal's online publication, had argued that only five people within the jurisdiction of the UK courts, three from Jameel's "own camp", had used the link to the offending article and in those circumstances Jameel could not demonstrate there had been "a real and substantial" wrong committed against him in the UK. Master of the Rolls Lord Phillips, in striking the claim out, said: "The game will not merely not have been worth the candle, it will not have been worth the wick."

Wall St Journal's online libel win brings 'much-needed clarity' | Media | The Guardian

Quick points:

When a claimant sues a newspaper there is a presumption that the offending article has been published to a third person. This is not the case with internet libel. Here the claimant has to prove that the offending article has been accessed and downloaded.

The one-year limitation on a claimant's right to sue for libel is renewed every day the offending article remains available on the publisher's internet archive. Once a publisher loses a libel action the article should be deleted immediately.


Shame limited

Criminals' details such as name, age, where they are from and their offence, can be published routinely on police websites but data protection and human rights laws mean there are restrictions on what is published, for how long and whether suspects' photos are published. The rules do not apply to media websites' reporting of court cases.

- Web limit on police 'naming and shaming' of criminals | BBC


Case study:
The price
of online

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