RealTime IT News

Human Rights Court to be Asked to Rule on British Libel Laws

Outcast, the online gay magazine, is to ask the European Court of Human Rights to rule that English libel laws breach the right to freedom of expression.

The legal challenge follows a spate of web site closures by ISPs which fear libel damages similar to those imposed recently on service provider Demon.

Last month, in a landmark decision in the High Court, Mr. Justice Eady accepted that ISPs were legally responsible for content posted on message boards.

In an out-of-court settlement more than £15,000 ($22,950) in damages - plus an estimated £480,000 ($734,400) in legal costs - were awarded to physicist Dr. Laurence Godfrey who had brought a libel case against Demon Internet over material posted on one of its discussion forums.

Demon, now owned by Thus, was served with a writ by the academic after it failed to comply with his request to remove a message purportedly written by him and which he argued was "squalid, obscene and defamatory."

Since the settlement, at least three web sites have been shut down by ISPs which fear a similar fate. In addition to Outcast - whose service provider Netbenefit has been threatened with legal action by a mainstream gay newspaper 'Pink Paper' - they include the web site of the Campaign Against Censorship Of The Internet In Britain, which is also the subject of a complaint by Dr. Godfrey.

A third web site set up by former Law Society vice-president Kamlesh Bahl has similarly been shut down following allegations it contained defamatory statements.

Meanwhile, legal experts eagerly await the outcome of the challenge brought by Outcast if only to clarify the 1966 Defamation Act which provides a defence of 'innocent dissemination' if it can be proved by ISPs, or other publishers, that they were unaware they had posted defamatory material.

The European Convention on Human Rights provides some constraints on the right to free speech. It includes allowing people to intervene if they believe their reputation is being falsely tarnished, but the degree of intervention has to be the minimum necessary.

AOL liable

In a separate blow to ISPs, a Munich court has held America Online liable for failing to stop pirated music being distributed over its networks.

The court ruled AOL should have prevented the downloading of copyrighted MIDI files, though no damages have yet been set. AOL is to appeal though in the meantime it is urging music companies to do more to protect copyrights.