Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Don't Shoot the Messenger: Google Can't be Held Responsible for Defamatory Blog Posts

by Tom Gardner

A High Court judge has likened Google to a graffiti strewn wall in a landmark judgement which says it cannot be held responsible for libellous or offensive content.

Mr Justice Eady said the internet giant was not bound by laws governing publishers, giving the company widespread immunity from English defamation laws.

In the judgement, which will have huge implications for freedom of speech in this country, he said: ‘It is no doubt often true that the owner of a wall which has been festooned, overnight, with defamatory graffiti could acquire scaffolding and have it all deleted with whitewash.’

'We should never have liberated France': David Starkey courts yet more controversy by claiming nations should be left to free themselves from oppression. His case against Google Inc over reactions to a blog labelling him, without justification, as a drug dealer and a thief, is now dead in the water.

Mr Tamiz sued over eight stinging ‘comments’ made in reaction to a blog posted on Google’s Blogger.com platform.

Amongst other things, they accused him of being a drug dealer and having stolen from his employers.

The judge said the allegations could not necessarily be dismissed as ‘mere vulgar abuse’ and it was ‘not altogether surprising’ that Mr Tamiz chose to sue Google as most of the posts were anonymous and it would have been difficult to track down those responsible.

But the judge was stinging of Google's lateness in reacting to Mr Tamiz's compaint, saying there was a ‘considerable delay’ before the blogger was contacted and the posts were removed.

Payam Tamiz was forced to resign as a Conservative candidate in last year's local council elections after posting inappropriate comments on the internet referring to women.

Mr Tamiz said: ‘I understand that my Facebook remarks were inappropriate and I unreservedly apologise for the offence they have caused. However, I feel it is important to put the remarks into context. They were made long before I was a member of the Conservative Party and long before I entered the political arena. They were made at a time of personal trouble and difficulty and I never intended for them to be interpreted as an unfair generalisation for the women of Thanet. I am deeply saddened that they have been taken out of context and misconstrued. I have resigned from the Conservative Party in the hope that this affair, which is being exploited and distorted by the opposition, does not damage the Party's electoral success...'

Catrin Evans, for Google, argued ‘it has no control over any of this content’ and, far from being a publisher, is merely ‘a neutral service provider’.

The judge said: ‘Google Inc makes the point that it has no way of knowing whether the comments complained of were true or not, or subject to some other defence in law.

‘It argues that it cannot reasonably be expected to investigate and determine the truth or falsity of allegations made by bloggers’.

He added: ‘One needs to be wary of analogies when considering modern technology, but it may perhaps be said that the position is, according to Google Inc, rather as though it owned a wall on which various people had chosen to inscribe graffiti. It does not regard itself as being more responsible for the content of these graffiti than would the owner of such a wall’.

Mr Justice Eady added: ‘I would be prepared to hold that it should not be regarded as a publisher, or even as one who authorises publication, under the established principles of common law. As I understand the evidence, its role, as a platform provider, is a purely passive one. I would rule that Google Inc is not liable at common law as a publisher.’

Google Inc sought almost £28,000 in legal costs against Mr Tamiz, but the judge said that figure was ‘somewhat disproportionate’ and cut it by one third.

He added that Mr Tamiz had been ‘confronted by allegations about drug dealing and stealing from his employers which no one suggested were remotely true’ and could not be blamed for going to court to remove the smear from his character.

The court heard Mr Tamiz is ‘not a man of means’ and the judge acknowledged that he ‘may not be in a position to meet’ Google’s legal costs bills, £5,000 of which he was ordered to pay within 28 days.

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