‘The legal position of Internet service providers in relation to defamation on the Internet’ is a challenging subject to write about. I’m not a lawyer – and anyone wanting to know specifics about their situation should seek professional legal advice. Having said that – there are lots of people on the ground who would welcome some general information. Quite a number of us deal with the Internet on a day-to-day basis and need to have some sense of the possible implications and practicalities of their actions – the ‘bigger picture’.
What is ‘defamation’ and where does it occur? Internet users might start their research with the Wiki definition. We’re reminded here of the differences between libel and slander. In her article ‘Law and the Internet’ Lilian Edwards describes four potential flashpoint locations: One-to-one email messages, mailing lists, newsgroups/Internet/discussion fora and the fourth group: the World Wide Web.
Imagine you’re writing something about events in your location. You’re critical of people you know, the health authorities, say or the government. You’ll probably be able to say (politely) what your beliefs and your feelings are without running into problems – but as soon as you portray something as fact – you may run the risk of defamation – and unless you are hosting your website or blog yourself, then your Internet Service Provider may be held responsible for your comments.
If the site you are writing on is carefully and regularly moderated, then your comments may not make it onto ‘air’. But if say, you’re a small charity with limited skills and resources and something slips through your moderator’s net, this could have very serious consequences.
The site Weblaw is a useful source here. Simon Halberstom writes: “It seems obvious that problems will arise in cases where a person claims a statement defames them and the ISP either has no way of knowing whether the statement is defamatory or whether the complainant is in fact the person defamed. Another concern for ISP’s must be whether, by deleting statements or whole newsgroups, they are breaching their contracts with the users who expect to participate in and receive news from newsgroups”.
There are other reasons why Internet lawyers have devoted whole books to this subject. The Internet is a global entity. As we know it’s possible to write a message on a message board about an individual or a company which is located on the other side of the planet. The legal profession is still evolving and finding new responses to cases which cross boundaries. The writing and the posting of images on the web is in many instances a transitory phenomenon. What is written today may be removed or updated tomorrow – which makes legal decisions even more complex.