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Wednesday, 5 April, 2000, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
Should there be free speech on the internet?
A UK internet service provider has paid £15,000 plus legal costs to a man who says he was defamed by messages which appeared on newsgroups.
Laurence Godfrey had claimed that Demon Internet failed to remove the offending messages from web pages it was hosting.
It was the first case of its kind in English law, reigniting the debate about who is responsible for content on the internet.
Should the world wide web be an open forum for absolute freedom of speech? Or should rules be imposed?
Rod Mansell, England
It would take a matter of days for any ISP to move it's sensitive information to a country where there are no such stupid laws. I for one hope they do!
It is time that the world realise that it's impossible to control matters such as this through the law - just the very fact that laws differ from country to country makes that very hard to do if someone defames you from a foreign country.
Instead we should let these matters be self-regulating, through supplying the tools so that users can rate content wherever they go on the Internet. And search engines could supply the filters so that users can fine-tune their experience by these ratings.
Yes, of course. If there must be free speech at all why should it matter what the medium? The more pertinent question is as to who should moderate such free speech.
Simon K, Bristol, UK
Free speech is at the heart of the modern internet, remember everybody is entitled to an opinion.
Any attempt to suppress it will simply fail, with the material being placed on the internet anyway.
Different areas for different types of exchange. For those who want exchanges to be monitored go to a site with rules, those who don't - don't.
Any organisation or politician who wishes to violate freedom of speech in any way should be considered a 'threat to democracy!' We British should have something in our constitution similar to America's 'first amendment' that would protect us from any free speech violations! If the TV, radio, newspaper or any other form of media is already being dictated by government regulations, then unfortunately it would only be a matter of time before they get to the internet!
Dear World, Please ensure that the entire content of the internet is immediately removed otherwise I shall be forced to take further action!
With our increasingly litigious culture and the inability of our rule-makers to appreciate the new technology there may be dark clouds ahead and even more messengers may find themselves getting shot.
Henry Case, UK
The UN charter only provides 'rights' so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. If your inaccurate article/posting slanders another person and wrecks their career or life, you have absolutely infringed on their rights and must be stopped. Rights with responsibilities.
Suing Demon is like Aitken suing his corner shop for selling the Guardian.
Yes everyone should be allowed to talk about what ever they want.
(i) Free speech is essential to democracy that cannot and should not be controlled or repressed in any way.
(ii) It is impossible to censor the internet without unjustifiably inhibiting people's basic human rights to free speech and democracy.
Benj'min Mossop, Britain
'Free speech' should be accountable, else it is irresponsible.
The web allows libel to be policed more effectively.
Responsibility should lie with ISPs to attribute and authenticate
Yes. Society needs an avenue for free speech. With the increasing commercialisation of traditional media organisations. Only the Internet can allow people to express their true feelings, whether good or bad...and it MUST remain so, if we ever want to realise the true meaning of free speech and democracy.
The world is full of vindictive, litigious people; this just gives them life-blood. I've had accounts shut down on AOL for disagreeing with someone politically in a newsgroup. That they can do that already proves beyond a doubt we are losing the free-speech battle in cyberspace. Let the ISP attach a disclaimer to every post. I wouldn't mind.
First, there is no such thing as true free speech: People will not tolerate expression of ideas that are too threatening to their cherished model of reality. To hold Demon responsible for the messages it channels through its digital circuits is like holding Transco responsible for bringing the North Sea gas to your home which blew up because you had a defective cooker.
As I have read it, the lawsuit was *not* about the false posting, but about Demon's failing to comply with Mr Godfrey's request that the post be cancelled.
Freedom of speech doesn't enter it.
Melody Forrest, England
In any area, whether it be a playground at school, a public meeting, a conference or the road system, there must be rules of conduct, lest the unpleasant element of society abuse their privilege of presence and abuse others.
The messenger must never be shot. We want the net to be as free as possible from bureaucratic interference, by state ot otherwise. So we must get our house in order or it will be done for us, and governments usually do a bad job of most things. Suggestion: Make the libeller liable to civil action in the country from which the message was sent. Demon did us all a great dis-service, but should not have been put in that situation. If the present system prevails, put all message forums into the ownership of companies without assets, so litigation is pointless.
It appears to me that if someone were defaming me on the Internet I would stop logging onto the newsgroup. This court case seems to suggest that Dr. Godfrey is out to make a name for himself. I believe the person who was defaming him could have been dealt with by law but to take the ISP to court is absurd and threatens the free flow of information on the Internet. If he doesn't like it he shouldn't use it.
Speaking from experience as a former large Demon corporate customer (while previously living in the UK) and as a network administrator. I can tell you that there IS NO RELIABLE way to remove an Internet news post from a NNTP (news) server. To remove the post would have involved EVERY server in the world pulling news feed from Demon (and all those servers sending feed to other servers) to delete the message. This is NOT possible within the specification of what NNTP was defined for. (Keep in mind that one message can easily propagate to 1000's of servers around the world in only a matter of hours)
This decision clearly exhibits the lack of technological understanding within the courts and the UK government.
Consider the following: Something is posted to a newsgroup which paints an individual in a bad light. They complain, and Demon (or whoever) remove the posting. Subsequently, it is shown that the posting was entirely true. Will the poster then sue Demon for removing it? Maybe the ISP should remove a posting if it is libellous, but should the ISP be the ones to decide whether it is?
Stephen Dooley, UK
Those who observe that the problem would not have arisen had Demon removed the posts on request are missing the point. For Demon to do so, it would have to have decided whether the material concerned actually was defamatory, that the material should be removed as a result, and then actually remove it-in other words, to act as judge, jury and executioner. That responsibility should not under any circumstances be given to any non-judiciary organisation much less forced upon one. That's the job of an unbiased, forward-thinking and democratically-minded judiciary. Sadly, we don't seem to have one of those in the UK.
The internet is just another publishing medium. Of course it should be subject to the same type of regulation as any other.
A couple of points of clarification. This case does not involve the Web. The defamatory material was posted on Usenet ('newsgroups') - a part of the internet which predates the Web by some 20 years. By the same token, this was not a 'chatroom'. Furthermore, the way Usenet works is that posts are 'propagated' from the server where they were made to ALL other servers across the world which carry that Newsgroup. The original post was apparently made from a server in Canada. Demon were simply a relay.
Not only could Demon not remove the post from any server other than their own (i.e. remove it from the whole Internet), even if they removed it from their own servers it would have reappeared in very short order.
So all Demon could have actually done is to remove the post temporarily at Dr Godfrey's request from one of tens of thousands of sources, and shortly thereafter it would be propagated back to them, and in any case be available across the world. This system was after all designed to withstand World War 3.
All of which does not of course make defamation acceptable.
Libel laws do not take
account of the nature of
the Internet. Newspapers,
radio and TV programmes,
and other conventional
media are directly
controlled by those who
provide the service, i.e.
the publishers. ISPs
provide a service which
gives the ordinary
individual the ability to
publish their view in a
Therefore in this sense
in ISP is not the
publisher, and any libel
cases should be brought
against the individual
who put the material on
Traditional media can and do defend themselves against libel action. However, if an ISP receives a complaint about a posting, which is factually accurate, do they investigate carefully and stand
up for their customer? Of course not! They remove the content without question for fear of fighting a law suit.
This precedent makes it easy for anyone to censor the views of someone who criticises them in any way, justly or otherwise.
Free speech should always be the rule. I'll strongly defend ANYBODY'S right to say what they want. I may totally disagree with what they have to say, but they should always have the right to say it. Doesn't matter who it is or what they say. If it harms another, then it is not the ISP who is responsible. That is unless we create a universal Thought Police Unit. They can police our thoughts and tell us the right way to think. Fact is, I nominate President Clinton to head up the organisation as he will be out of a job in a few months.
I am in favour of not libelling people, but how different is an I S P from, say the Post, or B T. They are not charged when people misuse them. How can the I S P's monitor every site?
I was a regular poster to newsgroups at the time that Dr Godfrey was being libelled. It was perfectly clear at that time that this was not a random or isolated event, but a concerted campaign to try to intimidate Dr Godfrey out of posting opinions that some people didn't like. He has done every poster a huge favour by pursuing this case and showing that posters cannot be libelled with complete immunity in the name of free speech. The libels uttered against Dr Godfrey were a clear attempt to suppress free speech, not to enhance it.
For at least the past decade, the British Government has been following a policy of naming and shaming. Failing schools have been publicly named, failing National Health Trusts, failing doctors. It is about time we are permitted to name and shame failing members of the judiciary, particularly those who are culpable of criminal negligence. It is therefore important that a member of the judiciary tries to prevent free speech on the internet, after all it is in their interest that they do not have to suffer the public ignominy of their own gross incompetence.
Stephen Spackman, Canada
From the little I've seen about this case, I think it's not too bad a precedent, since it was only after Demon refused to remove the message(s) once they'd been asked to do so, that the real problem arose. I don't think this means that ISPs will have to monitor everything, just respond promptly to legitimate requests for such removals.
I totally agree that freedom of speech is an essential characteristic of the net and that it should remain. However, as this case proves, ISPs must be more responsible and act to remove defamatory content or ban rogue customers. This is no different to the telephone being a medium for free speech but BT having to deal with nuisance callers - you can't expect BT to regulate speech but you can expect them to act on complaints.
No one has an unconditional right to tell lies about you, as an individual, that will damage your life and maybe the lives of others. Suppose someone took every opportunity to publish the lie that, say, you had a previous conviction for rape? Wouldn't you want you and your family protected against that kind of thing?
Sam, UK, has got it right by pointing out that Demon refused to remove defamatory content after they were notified and requested to do so. That's the point at which, as far as I'm concerned, their rightful responsibilities kicked in. Before then, definitely not. Right then, definitely yes.
A Smyth, UK
This case and its settlement sets a potentially dangerous precedent for the future.
If you post a robust argument or even strong language relating to an specific individual, your ISP might be liable, even though they are the medium of transmission of the message, not the source.
On this basis BT could be sued because they allowed someone to libel an individual in a phone call!
William Davies, UK
This is not just a case of holding ISPs responsible for material in hosted discussion groups or web sites. Demon were asked by Mr. Godfrey to remove the content and failed to do so. Whilst it is true that we cannot expect ISPs to check content before it is posted, it seems sensible to have some standard procedures in place for removal of offending items.
The web is just a blackboard. Anything written on it is the responsibility of the writer, not the person who provided the blackboard. Governments hate free speech, as it is in their nature to try to control human thought, in fact anything that they cannot control and tax.
ISPs should not be liable for the content of Web sites they host. The liability should rest with the account holder responsible for the offending content. If ISPs are liable this will stifle the growth of the Internet in the UK which will cause not only commercial but social and intellectual losses.
I think that the web should be free. That is one of its greatest virtues! To censor it or make companies libel is to reduce its effectiveness. KEEP IT FREE!
As long as it is not targeted at any individual or organisation, freedom of speech should be allowed on the net. If it weren't, then we wouldn't be able to have these discussions would we?
Andy Cannon, UK
How can the ISP's be expected to screen everything that goes through them? This will result in higher costs and a slow down on the already strained bandwidth available.
But, Demon should have been more responsible when the issue came to light. Therefore, freeness of speech should be a right, but, when this steps into the realms of abusing this privilege, then a legitimate complaint (such as in this case) should be acted on immediately by the ISP in question.
Freedom of speech is what the 'Net is all about. You have to accept the negative aspects too, otherwise the 'Net will not exist as we know it. It will just become a cold necessity of life, rather than something that evokes any kind of passion - that would be tragic. At the end of the day, people should be intelligent enough to believe only what they deem to be true, not what they are told to.
Steve Thompson, England
I am very concerned about the liability of ISP's to control message boards and chat rooms in light of this case. It seems the individual hosts and guides who work voluntarily for many ISP's are potentially liable for prosecution for inadequately 'policing' message boards or chat forums. I shall certainly review our family's use of such forums until proper guidelines have been issued.
A Canadian poster on a world-wide group, and ONE UK ISP gets sued. Why just Demon? There are hundreds of UK ISPs -- thousands world-wide. Why did BT not get sued - it carried the message? Why did Dr G not sue the Canadian? Did his reputation suffer as much as it has by this action? No such thing as freedom of speech in the UK!
Why should the internet be treated differently from any other media? If the Press can't print what they like, or TV stations say what they like, why should the internet? The publisher must take responsibility for the content of his site.
Freedom of speech is a right, but there is no right to slander or defame anyone in any medium, nor should there be.
Well that should just about polish of Usenet for good. No-one is going to dare hold news anymore. Another victory for the glorious forces of American style litigious idiocy. Godfrey should be ashamed of himself.
As a long-term customer, one of my original reasons for choosing Demon Internet as my ISP was the full, unrestricted access to newsgroups, as I didn't want an unqualified third party making decisions on what I can see or not see on the Internet. I still don't and will change my ISP should Demon impose restrictions on their usage of newsgroups. Furthermore, I believe that ISPs should not be held responsible for Internet traffic generated by others, in the same way that Railtrack is not responsible for the actions of passengers on trains operated by independent organisations using its tracks. Plenty of software exists to block or filter Internet content, it's a question of judiciously applying it where appropriate.
It's about time that the 'common carrier' immunity from libel held by the Post Office and telecomms companies was extended to the internet and ISPs.
I think it is right that the owner of a Web page be held responsible for the content of it. Demon were the owners of the Web page not just the ISP involved so comparing them to blaming BT for a phone call is not the same.
Ultimately though it should be the person who made the comment on the Message board who should be sued.
Mike Whelan, UK
I'm all for free speech but I don't agree with defamation. If a defamatory statement appears on the internet and someone is in a position where they can do something about it to remove it and they are requested to do so, doesn't it make sense that they should? Free speech is one thing, freedom to defame is another.
Chris Lepingwell, UK
Mr Godfrey has set a precedent that causes more problems than it solves. There are many unanswered questions about his actions in this case which you can read about on many sites on the web but I won't go into detail here in case Godfrey decides to sue me as well. Of course ISP's and all involved in the Net need to take a responsible attitude towards these issues, but Demon are right when they say the law hasn't moved with the times. Godfrey found a loophole, exploited it and got away with it. But his hollow victory spells problems for us all who use the Net.
Douglas McLellan, Scotland
Any individual has an absolute right not to be libelled, causing damage to his/her professional reputation, whatever medium carries the message.
Free speech must stay. Government and the judiciary must remember that they are servants of the people, not their masters. Why should I pay tax for schemes designed to monitor and control what I say?
Why are the BBC holding this debate when you reserve the right to edit comments in 'Talking Point' effectively censoring free speech. You are a load of politically correct control freaks at the BBC. This is hypocrisy at its very worst.
This is a sad day for the internet. Demon published nothing - the internet users responsible did! Sue them if you like, doctor, but no one else...
Further to this article, on the North west news it has just been on that Daily Mail columnist "Linda Lee-Potter" (I think her name is) was allegedly quoted as remarking whether the queens outfit had "come from Oxfam or Burnley Market".
Surely a derogatory statement like this is just as bad as the quote found on Demon internet's server and yet they would be very lucky if they successfully sued her on similar grounds.
Why all the uproar about this? Weren't posters removed from public areas during the visit of a certain Chinese governmental official? If you put up with that you've already lost the battle for free speech.
Talking point is one the best forum on the WEB. With views across the board on various topical issues. I hope noboby issues a writ against the BBC. That will be a very sad day for freedom of speech
Given the description of the postings given in the newspapers, it would appear to any remotely normal person that the postings were both libellous and irrelevant to the topic. I doubt that advocates of Free Speech would extend the right to allowing people to follow them around all day chanting abuse. The reality is not black and white - in the real world, we have to balance free speech with freedom from libel.
If ISP's are to be held liable for the content of the web, then that must make them publishers or broadcasters in the eyes of British law and hence the government, and therefore legally responsible for the posting content of millions of people all over the world.
An impossible task.My advise to ISP's, play it safe !!!
SWITCH OFF ALL YOUR SERVERS AND WATCH THE GOVERNMENT PANIC OVER IT'S E-COMMERCE POLICY.
30 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Demon settles net libel case
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites
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