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
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