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‘Net users can’t be sued for reposting defamatory statements

Say what you want, but the ‘Net is closing in on saying what you want .. or is it?

“The California Supreme Court ruled yesterday that individual Internet users are generally protected from libel actions when they repost material written by others, even if notified that such material may be libelous. While the ruling gives bloggers and Web journalists more freedom to act, it also led the court to worry about the ‘disturbing implications’ of granting such broad immunity.”

This news covered in more detail over on Ars Technica gives me cause for concern.

Firstly, the law is sort of saying that ignorance in the eyes of the law is .. well, we’re not going to get all heavy about this.

And second, this seems to be opening the door for scurrilous comments being knowingly propelled further.

“The ruling is based on a reading of section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which states that ‘no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.’ This is important because only those who author and publish defamatory statements can be held liable for them; distributors cannot.”

Which sounds fair enough on the face of it, but:

“If a newsstand sells a periodical which defames Bob Jenkins of 121 Mistledown Terrace, West Rumpleshneider, Vermont, Bob cannot sue the newsstand unless he can show that the distributor was notified of the defamation and continued to sell the magazine. He can also go after the magazine’s publisher, who is responsible for the material in the magazine.”

Sounds simple enough, but then you’re relying on a ‘he said / she said’ scenario where non-formal or even simple verbal notifications abound.

So what if the guy running some local newsstand carries on running a bunch of magazines, knowing only too well that someone they dislike is being unfairly and libelously defamed, and then just use the old “well, the dog ate the mail this morning!” routine?

The situation becomes worse for the web because you’re dealing with gazillions of ‘bloggers, hardly any of which will have any formal authorization to redistribute the news they’re running from their ‘blog.

So even if a formal procedure existed for notifying the person running the digital newsstand (i.e.: a ‘blog), who the hell are they? And, how does the original publisher find them to notify them?

Clearly then the onus falls squarely on the shoulders of the publishers?

Obviously, the publishers are hardly going to lose sleep over some back-bedroom ‘blogger getting a Cease & Desist order over their cheese on toast.

“It’s an idea that made the justices somewhat uneasy. ‘The prospect of blanket immunity for those who intentionally redistribute defamatory statements on the Internet has disturbing implications,’ said the court…”

Me too. In fact, I’m liable to think twice before just copying & pasting in future…

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

2 replies on “‘Net users can’t be sued for reposting defamatory statements”

This issue, as well as copyright protection is so difficult to standardize because there are now countless types of scenarios to account for. Everything from the professional blogger/writer/ who intentionally defames someone to the novice blogger who innocently copies and pastes something defamatory. I think it will take a long time to sort most of these issues out. It seems to me that the law is moving towards a more open system, which i think is a very good thing. Without it, the growth and innovation that is taking place on the web will be slowed. And that would be a very bad thing imo.

Hi Eric and thanks for posting!

Yes, there’s a greater degree of freedom, which will be used with suitable discretion by the majority.

But there’s always going to be that more vocal, ambitious minority who push the envelope of the letter of the law for their own ends.

The sort of thing that might ruin things for everyone.

From my interpretation, there’s just too much room for that kind of thing.

However, as you mention, in the here-and-now, the system is more open and permissive.

Thanks again for posting! Hope to see you soon…

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