Tuesday 3 July 2012

The defamation bill 2012 and the web

I have already commented on one aspect of the Defamation Bill 2012 that is directly aimed at operators of websites, but there are two other provisions, in the current draft (in the public bill committee) at clauses 8 and 10, which have a bearing on the way we do things on the web and which I do not believe have been properly thought through.

The host's nightmare

As soon as you allow other people to contribute material to your website, whether by comments to a blog, forum posts or something more substantial such as a wiki, you risk being held accountable for what they say. Even if you could rely on one of various defences, such as the "hosting" defence in the e-commerce directive, if a potentially defamatory comment has been brought to your attention, you are put in the invidious position of deciding whether to remove it or be prepared to defend your decision to allow it to stay. The various intermediary defences only go so far. If you bravely decide to keep it there, you may find yourself having to defend the statement itself. But of course if its not your statement, you may find that very difficult to do.

Last year I highlighted the problem this can cause for WhatDoTheyKnow but this is a problem that can affect vast numbers of website providers and of course any upstream posts they have. Surely this needs fixing?

What ought to happen?

Suppose someone - call them X - finds that a really damaging, but false, allegation has been made about them on a website run by Y, which will, or at least is likely to, cause X harm but the statement was made by someone else - call them Z. Y acting as an innocent host (forum operator, blogger etc). It seems right that X should be able to do two things:
  • have the statement removed, or at least corrected in some way
  • be compensated for damages for any harm they have suffered
These are two quite different things. It is only someone who is, in some sense, at fault for making the false statement who should be responsible for any compensation - where we can argue what "at fault" might mean. But, merely because someone ought not to be liable to pay damages for a damaging and false statement, does not mean they should not be responsible for removing it in any possible circumstances. For example, if X were able to prove in court that the statement was false - more than a claimant in defamation has to do right now - and satisfy the court that the statement should be removed at X's expense, then it seems hard to believe that X should have no way to compel Y to do so.

The defamation bill breaks this simple idea in at least two places.

Clause 10

The existing clause 10(1) says:
A court does not have jurisdiction to hear and determine an action for defamation brought against a person who was not the author, editor or publisher of the statement complained of unless the court is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for an action to be brought against the author, editor or publisher.
What this seems to be trying to do is to force claimants to go after the "real" culprit than an innocent intermediary. X must sue Z not Y. That seems entirely reasonable if we are talking about a claim for damages. If X can sue Z then they should get on and do it. But it may be utterly useless if X wants to prevent the continued publication of the statement. For example if X is able to sue Z and obtain damages but Y has closed Z's account (Z clearly being a troublemaker) then it is useless for X to obtain a court order against Z to stop the publication. Z no longer has the power to do so. Only Y can remove the statement, but X cannot sue Y - the court has no jurisdiction to hear their claim.

I do not believe this is what clause 10 is meant to do but as far as I can see, that is its effect.

The single publication rule

The bill also addresses a much older controversy, that goes back to the odd case of Duke of Brunswick v Harmer (1849) 14 QB 185. Charles II, Duke of Brunswick does not seem to have been a very nice man. He was drummed out of Brunswick and his duchy taken over by his brother. While living in Paris he sent a servant to collect a newspaper article about him in the archives of the British Museum. Although the limitation period since the article had been first published by the newspaper had long run out, he successfully sued for libel on the basis that there had been a fresh publication, to his servant, of the article when he had gone to collect it from the museum.

This rule has received lots of criticism over the years. See, for example, a Guardian article from 2005 suggesting that it threatens the internet. Newspapers that keep online archives have been particularly concerned. The limitation period for libel is one year after which time a newspaper editor could, potentially, breathe a sigh of relief, but if each time someone accesses an online newspaper archive there is a fresh publication, liability could last forever.

As an aside, the worst part of the Duke of Brunswick case has always seemed to me to be the fact that the Duke himself organised the publication to one of his servants. It seems unfair to allow someone to engineer an actionable wrong against themselves for which they can be compensated. Thankfully the world has moved on. Today the Duke of Brunswick's claim would almost certainly be struck out as an abuse of process because it fails to show a substantial tort, see Dow Jones v Jameel [2005] EWCA Civ 75.

It turns out that the multiple publication rule probably doesn't threaten newspaper archives. The Court of Appeal did not believe so in Loutchansky v The Times and the European Court of Human Rights, in the circumstances, agreed. Clearly there could be problems with a newspaper threatened with a libel action for an article published so long before that it would be difficult to defend, but if that were to happen, the newspaper's article 10 rights ought to permit the court to strike it out - at least the European Court of Human Rights seemed to think that is what ought to happen. I suspect our courts would agree.

The other concern about archived material was that once a defamation claim had been upheld, the article would have to be removed, changing the past in Orwellian fashion. Not so (it seems). All that is needed is the attachment of a short "Loutchansky" notice to the article indicating that its contents are disputed.

For example:
“Legal Notice 30 July 2009: Mr Budu denies that he was an illegal immigrant. He was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK on 23 June 2004.”
appears on a BBC news report concerning the claimant in Budu v BBC and seems to have been sufficient.

It seems to me that the multiple publication rule is not as quite as broken as many commentators suggest, but nevertheless, I can see that it is something that might need further though. The Defamation Bill seeks to "fix" it.

Clause 8

Clause 8 essentially abolishes the rule in the Duke of Brunswick case. It applies where anyone:
  • publishes a statement to the public (“the first publication”), and
  • subsequently publishes (whether or not to the public) that statement or 
    a statement which is substantially the same.
In which case the one year provided for in the Limitation Act 1980 starts running at the first publication. It does not start running again at every subsequent web access.

The authors of this clause clearly had in mind newspaper archive style publication where the first publication is made in a blaze of prominence and later publications (via the archive) are simply parasitic on the first. A claimant, they obviously feel, has had an opportunity to make their complaint when the publication is first made and should not be able to challenge it later. For paper news that is later electronically archived I can see that might make sense.

But the web works differently. Many things are published in obscurity. In theory they are available to the world, but often search engines do not find them or at least consign them to many pages down the search results which is effectively the same thing. Sometimes something then happens to force the obscure into the limelight. A blog-post or an article might be found by someone influential and re-posted, re-tweeted or otherwise given more juice. It is at that moment that an obscure defamatory comment might come into the limelight and cause its subject problems.

As far as I can see clause 8 completely ignores the way the web actually works and relies on first publication being the most prominent. It gives a nod to a change in circumstance in 8(4) which says:
This section does not apply in relation to the subsequent publication if the manner of that publication is materially different from the manner of the first publication.
But in my example the manner of publication has not changed. It is the way the web links to it that has and that is all important. The limitation period for defamation can be waived by the court in certain circumstances, so clause 8 might not be an absolute bar to a claim, but in my view it would be much better if the whole provision had been thought through properly bearing in mind the way the web now operates.