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BBC's Paul Reynolds in Washington
"Service providers treated like phone companies"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 2 May, 2000, 01:10 GMT 02:10 UK
US backs net free speech
Computer user
No legal liability for service providers
The US Supreme Court has upheld a ruling that internet service providers (ISPs) are not responsible when someone is libelled in e-mails or bulletin board messages.

It left intact a judgement by the New York Appeals Court which ruled that an ISP should not be treated as a publisher but as a telephone company. In other words, it should be treated as a provider of equipment.

This contrasts with the UK, where the ISP is being regarded as a publisher and therefore liable.

The public would not be well served by compelling (an ISP) to examine and screen millions of e-mail communications, on pain of liability for defamation.

Appeals court ruling
The Supreme Court rejected an appeal stemming from several obscene messages an impostor posted six years ago in the name of Alexander Lunney, then aged 15.

Mr Lunney, a New York high school student at the time, sued Prodigy Services Co after the impostor opened internet accounts under his name and sent a threatening, profane e-mail message to someone who then notified the police.

Obscene bulletin board messages were also posted in Mr Lunney's name. Mr Lunney sued the ISP, but three New York state courts rejected his lawsuit.

The New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest tribunal, said the service provider was not legally culpable for either the objectionable e-mail or the bulletin board message.

US providers are protected from liability, unlike in the UK
"Prodigy was not a publisher of the e-mail transmitted through its system by a third party," the state court ruled unanimously.

"We are unwilling to deny Prodigy the common-law qualified privilege accorded to telephone and telegraph companies."

Lawyers for Mr Lunney had argued that this was the worst of a series of internet-related liability cases that had developed an "enlarging rule of law that totally immunises non-carrier, proprietary online services from virtually any...liability."

BBC Washington correspondent Paul Reynolds says the case illustrates the differing paths being taken by the courts in the United States and the United Kingdom over freedom of speech on the internet.

Earlier this year, the ISP Demon settled a case with scientist Laurence Godfrey who claimed that he had been libelled on a usenet news group carried by Demon.

A number of other British providers have taken down websites after letters from lawyers.

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See also:

30 Mar 00 | UK
Net libel claims warning
30 Mar 00 | Americas
US regulators fight internet fraud
06 Mar 00 | Business
Battle for the internet
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