In the significant New Zealand Court of Appeal decision in Murray v Wishart ( NZCA 461) the judges unanimously ruled that a third party publisher (the owner of a Facebook page that contained comments by others) was not liable for other people’s comments simply because he “ought to have known” that they contain defamatory material (even if he didn’t actually know of the content of the comments).
So hosts of Facebook pages will only be liable for defamation of posters’ comments if (a) they actually knew about the comments and (b) failed to remove them in a reasonable time in circumstances that give rise to an inference that they were taking responsibility for the comments.
Will this apply to other content hosts, such as the Blogger platform, search engines and ISPs? Maybe. The Court said:
“Our analysis of the authorities shows how sensitive the outcome can be to the particular circumstances of the publication. The fact that many of the authorities relate to publication in one form or another on the internet does not provide any form of common theme, because of the different roles taken by the alleged publisher in each case” .
So there’s still room for development of the law here. And the outcomes for online entities that have some role in publishing others’ comments seems somewhat fact sensitive. The indications in this judgment are that the Courts should assess which analogies are most appropriate in the particular circumstances: for example, is the publisher more like a news vendor (who can be taken to have accepted liablity for the publications being sold, subject to an innocent dissemination defence), or the owner of a public noticeboard (who hasn’t really taken part in publication until they are told someone has posted a defamatory notice)?
This offers some comfort to ISPs, who are usually likely to fall into the latter category. But it seems that once they are notified, then it will usually be a short step to the conclusion that they have adopted the statement if they do not remove it within a reasonable time.
This post originally appeared on the Media Law Journal blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.
David Hooper, Consultant
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