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.

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