America Online?s (AOL) chief lawyer in the UK has called for the government to clarify Internet Service Providers? (ISPs) responsibilities for dealing with libellous content on customers? web sites.
The call follows the latest action in AOL's two-year legal battle in the US with a former customer.
Kenneth Zeran sued the ISP after an unknown user posted a message on the service alleging he sold T-shirts with offensive slogans about the Oklahoma city bombing. Last week AOL called for the Supreme Court to reject Zeran?s appeal.
The message remained on the site for more than a month and Zeran said he was harassed after a local radio station picked up on the Internet message.
Two US courts ruled that AOL was not liable for the material, citing a section of the Communications Decency Act. It states that interactive computer services should not be treated as the publisher of content posted by a third party. However it recommends service providers voluntarily remove obscene or objectionable material. AOL has won two other court battles on the strength of this amendment.
UK ISPs rely on the 1996 Defamation Act to protect them against unintentionally libellous content. ISPs have to prove they are not the author of the defamatory material and that they took reasonable care to ensure it is not libellous.
Justin Rushbrooke, a barrister at Raymond chambers in London, said: ?When an ISP is aware of a defamatory Web site are they liable for it? It?s a moot point and you?ll see more libel cases being brought in the future.?
david Phillips, chief lawyer for AOL-Bertlesman in Europe said: ?The 1996 defamation act needs to clarify the rights and responsibilities of ISPs. They have a different relationship to content than the traditional media.?
Phillips did not know how many defamatory web sites may occur on AOL sites in the UK, but with the large ISPs averaging 200,000 customers it will be hard to spot all rogue content.
?Although self-regulation is the only thing that works you can?t expect ISPs to act as policemen. If something on a site is potentially libellous the ISP should inform the author,? said Ian Stevenson, head of new media at Ovum.
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