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Thursday, 30 March, 2000, 17:58 GMT 18:58 UK
'Chilling effect on free speech'
Computer screen
By internet correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones

For Dr Laurence Godfrey Thursday's settlement of his libel case is a personal triumph.

For three years he battled with Demon Internet in what his lawyers described as a David and Goliath case. He says his one-year-old child has hardly seen him, so time-consuming has the case been.

But some internet service providers business have warned the outcome is a disaster for free speech.

The case was really lost for Demon last year when Mr Justice Morland rejected the main line of its defence - that it was an innocent distributor of material which nobody disputed was unpleasant and defamatory.

Demon talked for a while of appealing against that ruling - but then dropped the idea. But the company proceeded with the rest of the case until Thursday when it finally settled with Dr Godfrey in what must be seen as a humiliating defeat.


Laurence Godfrey
Laurence Godfrey: Three-year battle

While this case does not mean that ISPs can be sued whenever their servers carry defamatory material, it will mean they have to take complaints far more seriously.

Demon lost not because the newsgroup messages were posted but because the firm failed to respond when Dr Godfrey demanded they were removed.

The problem is that every day hundreds of thousands of postings appear from all over the world on every kind of newsgroup and bulletin board.

Many of them are rude, offensive or downright libellous.

Debate sparked

Now that the Godfrey case has received wide publicity, others may bombard ISPs with demands that messages should be removed.

Adam Taylor Head of the IT group at the law firm Withers said that ISPs would now be cast in the role of unwilling policemen.

"I think it's going to have a chilling effect on free speech on the internet, " he said.

He believes firms will be inclined simply to delete any contentious material becuase they will be unable to investigate whether a posting is defamatory or not.

The pioneers of the internet always believed one of its glories was that you could say anything, fair or foul, to anyone about any subject on earth.

But the Godfrey case has sparked a debate about just how far that freedom should go.

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See also:

30 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Landmark net libel case in court
30 Mar 00 | UK
Net libel claims warning
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