Author:Mr Keith Smyth
Profession:Dillon Eustace


The worldwide use and scope of the internet has created an

unprecedented forum for the publication of defamatory statements.

In recent times, the proliferation of websites whose address often

takes the form of www.rate-your-[insert profession].com brings the

issue of defamation on the internet to the fore and cases relating

to such websites serve to highlight the practical difficulties of

litigating to protect one's reputation.

In terms of legal principle there is no difference between

defamatory material being published on the internet or defamatory

material being published in more traditional media such as

newspapers. Who, though, is responsible in law if defamatory

material is published on a website on the internet?

Some Useful Terms and Concepts

Defamation is the wrongful publication of an untrue statement

about a person, which damages that persons reputation or tends to

lower that person in the eyes of right-thinking members of society

or tends to hold that person up to hatred, ridicule or contempt, or

causes that person to be shunned or avoided by right-thinking

members of society.

Defamation is a legal term that refers to two torts (i.e.

actionable civil wrongs): libel and slander. Libel is defamation by

communication in permanent or lasting form; slander is defamation

by communication in transient form. When considering written

website defamation, therefore, we are concerned only with


Defences to actions for defamation include the defence of

innocent dissemination and the defence of fair comment.

A legal action for defamation requires that there be (1)

publication of material, (2) identification of the

"defamed"; (3) the capacity of the publication to damage

one's reputation, (4) damage and (5) the absence of a suitable


Traditional Defamation

Traditionally, the maker of a published defamatory statement and

the publisher of the defamatory statement may be liable for libel.

A person who distributes a publication containing the defamatory

statement may also be liable. However, different levels of

responsibility are afforded to persons at different levels of the

chain of publication. Generally, retailers and libraries at the

final level of the distribution chain who innocently disseminate

the libellous material will not be liable for the publication; on

the other hand, authors and editors (such as media organisations

and printers) of the material bear a much higher level of

responsibility in respect of the publication of the material.

Applying Traditional Laws to the Online Environment

Generally, website operation consists of four different levels

at which the following operate: (i) the conduit provider; (ii) the


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