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High Court rules over search engine libel accountability

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Publishers cannot be held liable for slanderous material republished out-of-context on internet search engines, the High Court ruled this month.

Revolving around the dispute between the BBC and immigrant Sam Budu, the High Court deemed that neither a search engine nor publisher should face libel claims, even if articles contain clearly libellous material, and that such contentious articles should only be read in context when forming a libel case.

In 2004, Sam Budu took the BBC to court over articles published on its website referring to Mr Budu’s employment with Cambridgeshire Police.

In an initial article, the BBC claimed that an individual had been denied a job with the police force after management discovered he was an illegal immigrant. Mr Budu was named in subsequent articles but maintained he was not in the country illegally.

While suing the corporation over the original articles, Mr Budu also launched a claim for republications found on internet search engine Google. He argued that, while the original articles could not be seen as libellous when taken in context, the snippet republished by Google did amount to a serious case.

By law, claims for libel can only be launched a year after an article’s publication but Mr Budu argued that Google’s involvement meant the content could still be accessed.

The BBC claimed he was abusing the process of libel and Mrs Justice Sharp agreed that the case was untenable.

“Liability for publication cannot accrue by default, but can only attach on principled grounds,” said Mrs Justice Sharp. “If the real complaint is in respect of the original article/webpage from which the snippet is, or is said to be extracted, then a claimant genuinely interested in compensation or vindication can pursue a claim, including for injunctive relief, against the original publisher of that webpage.

“It would not be appropriate or just in my view to make the publisher of the original webpage responsible in law for a snippet which makes a defamatory allegation not made in the original webpage itself.”

In addition, the court threw out Mr Budu’s claims over the original articles, ruling that in order for the public to believe he was an illegal immigrant six years later they would need to investigate his name and subsequently read all related articles.

Currently, E-commerce Regulations protect information service providers from liability for the information they pass on unless they have been told that it breaks the law.


Written by Andrew Hodges

April 8, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Posted in Comment, LinkedIn

Tagged with , ,

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