Book Review: Online Publication Claims: A Practical Guide (eds Hugh Tomlinson QC & Guy Vassall- Adams) – Christina Michalos

15 11 2017

Online Publication Claims: A Practical Guide pretty much does what it says on the tin cover. It is a new book written collectively by media law practitioners at Matrix Chambers dealing with, surprisingly enough, claims arising out of internet publication.

There is one interloper in the Matrix – Dave King of Digitalis (Digitalis describes itself as an online reputation and digital intelligence firm) – who is credited as the main author of the first chapter about the operation of the internet.

In the interests of full and frank disclosure, it should be noted that one of the book’s editors is the leading media law QC, Hugh Tomlinson who is one of the creators of the Inforrm Blog on which this review appears. I can confirm this review is entirely independent and as you would expect, my right to freedom of expression has not been curtailed!

The book’s stated intention is to provide a guide for legal practitioners advising or assisting in bringing or defending media law civil claims arising out of online publication.

After a general introduction to the internet, its operation and take down procedures (including links to take down forms on the major social media sites), the book is structured as follows with chapters on:

  • The right to be forgotten (or as the book observes, more properly called “the right to delist”) which deals with delisting by search engines of results following the decision in Google Spain .
  • Identifying the defendant which considers Norwich Pharmacal orders and their effectiveness.
  • Jurisdiction and choice of law.
  • Substantive tort law (summarised over two chapters) that covers the topics one would expect – defamation; malicious falsehood; harassment; breach of confidence; misuse of private information and data protection.
  • Defences specific to service providers
  • Remedies – including special damages claims for costs of taking down internet republications and declarations of falsity.
  • Practical issues in relation to both bringing and defending a claim.

For legal practitioners unfamiliar with the arena of online publication claims, this is a very comprehensive and accessible book that tells you all you need to know. The cover price of £34.99 also recommends it; lawyers are all too familiar with legal tomes that require parting with several hundreds of pounds.

For a non-media specialist, an investment in this book before dealing with an online claim would be money well spent. It clearly summarises the key areas of law and also identifies practical pit falls for the unwary.  Although some sections are legally technical, a substantial part of is easily understandable and could also be of assistance to both businesses and educated members of the public dealing with these types of issues and to inform a decision as to whether to instruct a lawyer.

As perhaps may be expected in a practical book of this sort, the substantive law sections are necessarily very top line. Any one of the topics is itself the subject of a practitioner text running to hundreds of pages with an equivalent price tag. A media law specialist is unlikely to find any surprises in these chapters but a non-specialist will find a straightforward summary of the key legal principles.

Although its main market will be those venturing into online publication waters for the first time, the book is not without value even to the specialist. The jurisdiction chapter does an admirable job of summarising a complex area of law. It has the benefit of locating in one place all the necessary jurisdictional rules and regulations that need to be considered in relation to defamation, misuse of private information, data protection and intellectual property cases.

Equally, the right to be forgotten chapter contains recent European case law, some useful checklists and reference points including the Article 29 Working Party (the EU data protection advisory body) criteria for de-listing and a summary of the Google policies for de-listing as well as a helpful section on the General Data Protection Regulation right to erasure.  There is definitely material for a media lawyer but it is fair to say that overall much of the ground will be familiar to those who regularly practice in this field.

Criticisms are minor.  For those who would like to accompany me to Pedants’ Corner, the introduction has several unnecessary quotation marks around the most curious of words – “media law”, “textbook” and “online archives” being particular highlights.  None of these terms are obvious contenders for this punctuative adornment.  More substantively, the page numbers were inexplicably placed at the top of the page near to the spine (rather than the more usual top outer corner or bottom centre of the page). This made them harder to read and would benefit from altering if the book is reprinted.

Any book dealing with online publications faces the inevitable problem that links will quickly be out of date. The book has a website featuring short interviews with and articles by the authors. It would be a nice addition if there was a page that collated and kept up to date all the takedown and complaint form links included in the book.

The authors stated aim is to provide a road map for “what is an expanding but, for many, unfamiliar area of litigation”.  Insofar as this was the aim, it has been commendably achieved.

Christina Michalos is a barrister at 5RB.


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