Net libel fears grow

June 9, 1995

Universities' fears that they could be sued for defamatory messages staff and students write on the Internet will receive little relief from a draft bill to be published next month.

The bill may absolve universities of general responsibility when they act as a "node" on the Internet. But moderators of news groups on the Internet could be liable because they have editorial control over what is written.

The bill, from the Lord Chancellor's department, follows a court decision in the United States that an on-line computer service run by Prodigy had responsibility for defamatory statements which a user put on its system.

The court stressed, however, that Prodigy was an exception because it had said in its marketing material that it had editorial control over messages. This put Prodigy into the category of publisher.

Nick Braithwaite, media lawyer at international law firm Clifford Chance, said: "What you can extrapolate is that you have to look at the exact situation of each case. A bulletin board operator might be a publisher in one situation and not in another.

"Most universities are nodes on the Usenet and if people are sending defamatory messages there's inevitably a potential for liability."

Experts have predicted that victims could be encouraged to sue after the settlement of a defamation case between two science lecturers.

Laurence Godfrey, a London lecturer, accepted a payment into court from Philip Hallam-Baker, formerly of Cern in Geneva, after issuing a writ against him.

Dr Godfrey said that the settlement meant there would be no case law: "It was never my intention to make big bucks but to make sure that my reputation is vindicated.

"This case shows that it is not as difficult as he (Dr Hallam-Baker) thought it would be to prove who has posted a message."

Mr Braithwaite said that academics and students would have to acquire "a journalistic sensitivity to the law of libel".

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