Hidden legal traps exposed on the freewheeling net

January 6, 1995

Fears about the potential for libel on the Internet have resurfaced with the launch of a major lawsuit in the United States.

The owner of a US electronic bulletin board, Prodigy Services, is being sued for Pounds 100 million for a message posted on its system accusing a company of fraud. A subscriber to the bulletin board is also named in the suit. But David Lusby of Key West, Florida, says that his account was inactive and that someone else used it without authorisation. The case reopens the question of whether a body that runs such a system can be held responsible for messages that users post on it. British universities, which supply equipment for employees to access the Internet, may need a contract clause instructing employees not to put anything defamatory on the line, says Nick Braithwaite, media lawyer at Clifford Chance. This may satisfy the requirement under English law for them to discharge some minimum burden of care to ensure that nothing defamatory is put on the line. A 1991 US case against Compuserve found that a company could not be held accountable for posted messages. But some experts think it may have been an inappropriate judgment. Meanwhile, a writ issued by two Canadian universities against a British science lecturer has been transferred from the High Court to the Central London county court. Carleton University and Brock University, of Ontario, are sueing Laurence Godfrey of London. Dr Godfrey is planning to issue Internet-related writs against several Canadian universities .

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