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Tuesday, 10 December, 2002, 13:30 GMT
Q&A: Australia website ruling

BBC lawyer Glenn Del Medico examines the implications of a high court ruling that the US-based Dow Jones can be sued in Australia over an article on its website.

What are the effects for the media?

This ruling confirms the belief that, in Commonwealth jurisdictions, it is possible to sue in libel whenever and wherever the information is received.

In pre-internet times, it was always possible to sue a publication or radio/TV programme in the country of sale or reception.

The BBC, for example, has been sued for libel in the Irish Republic, even though our signal is not deliberately directed there.

Newspapers sold in that country may also be sued, even though their circulation may be numbered in dozens.

Is this a precedent which will apply worldwide, not just in Australia?

No. This judgment holds good in Australia only, but is highly likely to be followed in other Commonwealth countries.

It is unlikely to be followed, however, in the USA, which has a far more liberal law of defamation.

What other precedents have there been on internet publishing?

The only other precedent of note in the past year has been the case of Louchansky, fought in the English courts, where it was held that a certain limitation period commenced every time someone accessed a defamatory internet page.

The limitation period is currently one year for defamation actions.

The judgment means that a piece put on the internet five years ago could be sued upon today if the relevant pages are still accessible.

Are internet service providers and publishers equally liable?

There has always been a liability on publishers.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are no different, except they have no responsibility for outside contributions to their sites that turn out to be defamatory provided they have taken sufficient care.

This means that the ISPs will need to remove defamatory material from their sites as soon as they are aware of the nature of it.

"Taking care" has not yet been fully defined in the courts, and only applies to material supplied from outside sources.

Material put on site by the ISP itself is not protected in this way.

How enforceable is the ruling?

Enforceability in an international issue of this kind will depend on a number of factors, including the nature of the publishers' presence in Australia and US law.

Do any other recent libel laws affect the internet?

Brussels is debating the introduction of laws that will enable defamation and other claimants to sue in whatever EU court they think fit, on the basis that their cases will be decided in accordance with the law of their home country.

So, it may be possible for a privacy complainant in France to sue in the UK with the case decided in accordance with French laws.

Or, a privacy breach in the UK could be decided in the French courts, using more strict French law, purely because the claimant was French.

In internet terms, this means that publishers and lawyers will need to exercise greater care in publishing material that may impinge upon the reputations of foreign users.

The BBC's Dominic Hughes
"Lawyers say that this case will have a chilling effect on publishers around the world"
See also:

28 Oct 02 | Business
09 Jun 01 | Americas
28 Mar 01 | Business
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