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US ruling finds libel hosts exempt

The California Supreme Court has ruled that bloggers and US internet providers are not liable for posting defamatory comments which are written by third parties.

The judges announced that the ruling would protect freedom of expression and people claiming they were defamed online could seek damages from the original author of the comments, but not the website which had re-posted it.

The ruling has overturned a decision by the San Francisco appeal court which saw a San Diego woman sued after posting allegedly libellous comments online. Her letter, which appeared on a website, was of a contentious nature and led to both the author and the owner of the website being sued by the subject in the letter.

Struan Robertson, editor of OUT-LAW.COM and a technology lawyer with AOP associate member law firm Pinsent Masons, said the case highlights a major difference between US law and UK law on the duty to remove defamatory postings.

"In the UK, service providers have a duty to remove or block access to defamatory material that they host once they are made aware of it. They can be sued if they fail to do so expeditiously," he said. "The same approach is taken across Europe; but the US considers this to be an impossible burden on service providers and anathema to free speech."

Robertson said this leaves victims of defamation in an impossible situation. "Under US law, you can sue your defamer but you can't force a third party to take the offending comments off-line. This is inconsistent with US law on copyright, where a statutory notice-and-takedown procedure gives effective remedies to rights holders."

Associate Justice Carol A. Corrigan acknowledged section 230's immunity has "some troubling consequences" but wrote: "Until Congress chooses to revise the settled law in this area … plaintiffs who contend they were defamed in an Internet posting may only seek recovery from the original source of the statement."

She continued: "The prospect of blanket immunity for those who intentionally redistribute defamatory statements on the internet has disturbing implications. Nevertheless statutory immunity serves to protect online freedom of expression and to encourage self-regulation, as Congress intended."

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are protected by US Federal law that states providers of chat rooms or news groups are not considered the publishers of information furnished by others. The ruling will please ISPs who have long maintained that they are 'common carriers' who can not be made subject to libel laws, much like telephone companies.

Source: BBC News

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