Demon Internet has lost the first round in a court battle that could threaten free speech on the Internet and put other ISPs and network administrators at risk.
Scientist Laurence Godfrey sued Demon in 1995 for its failure to remove a libellous message, which Godfrey claimed was forged, from the Demon-hosted soc.culture.thai newsgroup.
Demon estimates that there are 1,000,000 individual articles posted in more than 35,000 newsgroups each day, and used a defence of "innocent dissemination" and "innocent distribution" at a pre-trial hearing.
This defence was made possible by changes made to the Defamation Act in 1996, which were designed to protect ISPs in such cases. But the judge in the case, Dr Justice Morland, struck down this defence on the grounds that, according to the same clause of the Act, the ISP "must be unaware of the defamation". Godfrey had faxed Demon in 1997 asking that the offending message be deleted.
Karen Mason, head of legal services at Demon, argued: "There was nothing to stop Godfrey from posting a correction to the newsgroup, and he could also have cancelled (deleted) the posting."
Mason also pointed out that Demon received "up to 10" complaints of alleged defamation each week. "How can I judge what is defamatory when the person (making the defamatory posting) could be 200 miles away?" he asked.
Yaman Akdeniz, head of Cyber Liberties and Cyber Rights UK, said: "I think the implications are the same for anyone who is in the business of administrating networks, whether internal or open to the public. The Defamation Act is clear in relation to third-party liability, but I believe the 'notice and takedown' provisions of the law will result with heavy burdens on network administrators and ISPs."
Claire Gilbert, an council member of the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA), said: "Unless the ruling is overturned, it will make ISPs scapegoats for their users. It will also be a severe hindrance to the government's objective to make the UK a centre for Ecommerce."
An ISPA spokeswoman said that the ISPA had called for a meeting with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Minister responsible for the Internet, Michael Wills, with a view to clarifying the law.
The case will now go to the High Court, pending an appeal by Demon, but Mason said: "We're confident we've got a good defence no matter which way the appeal goes."
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