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.
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
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.
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
'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."
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.
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.