Monday, July 02, 2007

Defamation, search engines and the E-Commerce Directive

I'm quoted in the Sunday Tribune on the impact of Irish defamation laws on search engines. Unfortunately I have to quibble slightly with how the law is described in the article, which may be due to a breakdown in communications between myself and the author. Full text and my comments follow:
GOOGLE is facing a landmark defamation suit in Britain that could have repercussions for Ireland's attractiveness as a destination for online businesses.

The search giant has been sued by London businessman Brian Retkin, who claims the US company is responsible for providing links to inaccurate or malicious information about him and his business posted anonymously on the internet.

Irish legal observers, and Google's Dublin based legal eagles at its European headquarters, are watching the case unfold as defamation laws in the Republic are significantly less up-to-date than English laws on online libel.

The main difference is that internet service providers and online product providers such as Google have specific legal devices available to them under British defamation law and the EU's e-commerce directive, whereas in Ireland the laws have not been updated to take account of the information revolution.

"It's ridiculous because we're advertising ourselves as a knowledge economy and aiming to attract more companies like Google and Ebay here, but we're not giving them the legal protection they need in terms of defamation, " says barrister and digital rights campaigner TJ McIntyre.

The law lecturer claims there is a danger of Dublin courts attracting "libel tourism", much as London attracts so-called divorce tourism because of the reputation of English judges in awarding large pay-outs.

"Ireland's defamation laws are rooted in the middle of the last century, and even if [Michael] McDowell's proposed reforms in his defamation bill went through there would still be no mention of specific defences for online publishers."

The Retkin allegations are believed to have originated in America, where it is much more difficult to succeed in a libel claim because US judges have ruled that search engines and other internet service providers are immune from defamation lawsuits.

In Ireland, an online publisher could be treated as a disseminator of libel in much the same way as a newsagent can theoretically be sued for distributing newspapers containing defamatory content.

With Google linking to 11.5 billion web pages, potential financial damages in an Irish court could be staggering.

A spokesman for Google would not comment on the specifics of the case. "The company would reiterate that is has no connection or ability to direct or influence the content of web pages which may be shown as links within any given set of search results."
My quibble is with this passage:
[D]efamation laws in the Republic are significantly less up-to-date than English laws on online libel.

The main difference is that internet service providers and online product providers such as Google have specific legal devices available to them under British defamation law and the EU's e-commerce directive, whereas in Ireland the laws have not been updated to take account of the information revolution.
In fact, Irish and UK laws on intermediary liability are quite similar - both the Irish and UK Regulations adopt a minimalist approach to implementing the E-Commerce Directive (which has been transposed into Irish law, contrary to what the article might suggest). The problem for search engines and other intermediaries is that the E-Commerce Directive does not go far enough. Under the Directive a limited immunity is given to three classes of intermediaries - caches, hosts, and mere conduits. This, however, leaves other internet intermediaries out in the cold. Search engines, providers of hyperlinks and content aggregators are analogous to hosts or mere conduits (they facilitate access to material but do not control it or have knowledge of its content) - but they do not enjoy comparable protection under the Directive.

Several European countries have decided that the Directive is too narrow - Austria, Hungary, Portugal and Spain, amongst others, have created additional protections for search engines. The European Commission has also encouraged Member States to extend protection to other internet intermediaries. The risk for Ireland is that we may become less attractive as a destination for these businesses if Irish law does not follow suit. The Defamation Bill 2006 should have provided an opportunity to consider this issue - but that Bill would not have changed the law in this area had it been enacted.

On the libel tourism point, possibly the best Irish example is USA Rugby Football Union Limited v. Ivan Calhoun. In that case, although the plaintiffs ultimately failed to have the Irish courts accept their case, they succeeded in subjecting the defendant to two years of litigation (in both the Circuit Court and High Court) despite the lack of any real connection to Ireland, and despite the fact that the material published would not have been actionable in the United States.

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