Defamations and redressals
Should one be able to defame people on the Internet without any fear of retribution? Should people who have been defamed on the Internet have no legal redress?At one level, these questions are meaningless. If something I write in this blog defames you then you are free to sue both me and HT Media, the owners of this site. The problem arises when the defamation is carried by anonymous sites. Suppose that instead of writing this blog under my own name, I ran an anonymous blog hosted by Google or some other giant. If I defamed you, you would have no way of knowing who I was or of finding me to serve a legal notice.
Some people would argue that this is only right. The Internet is a medium that allows freedom to its users. Allow the law to decide what users can say and what they cannot and you destroy the spirit of the Internet.
Others would argue that it is not so simple. Assume somebody posts a blog saying that your mother is a prostitute. Suppose he includes her telephone number and mischievously urges potential customers to phone her.
In these circumstances, what legal redress is open to you? The blogger is anonymous and his blog is secret. So, not only can you not sue him for defamation or worse, but you cannot even get him to delete the reference to your mother.
Do we tolerate this situation on the grounds that the Internet is a free medium?
I think not.
I am all for Internet freedom but I think we should be clear about definitions. If you write that I am the world’s worst writer, that I am an ugly sod, and that you want to throw up each time you read anything I write, I might be hurt but I would also recognise that you had a right to these views.
If, on the other hand, you wrote that I was a bank robber who had been arrested in two previous cases, then I would regard these statements as false and defamatory and reserve my right to take legal action.
As the old cliché goes, comment is free but facts are sacred.
Nevertheless, the practical problems remain. If a blogger is anonymous, then how do you take action against him even if a clear instance of defamation exists?
A case currently pending before the Bombay High Court offers one instance. The plaintiffs, who believe they have been defamed, are suing Google which hosts the offending blog. Their position is that if Google is the host then it must accept some measure of responsibility.
It is a position that has its roots in the law as it applies to other media. If I use my HT column to call you names, then not only am I liable for defamation, but so are the editor, printer and publisher of the HT as well as HT Media itself. If I defame you on this site, then HT Media is liable. If I am invited as a guest on an NDTV programme and proceed to defame you then it does not matter whether I am the anchor or a guest, NDTV is still liable.
If you go by these precedents, then there seems to me to be no doubt that Google is liable. You cannot offer a platform for defamation and then, accept no responsibility for the defamation when it occurs.
While the legal position seems to me to be clear-cut, there are practical problems. The Internet is essentially an editor-less medium and this is one of its strengths. If I defame you in print or on TV, there is somebody who is in a position to stop me either before the defamation reaches a wider audience or even (in the case of TV) during the programme itself. This does not apply to the Internet. How is Google going to check every blog before it is published? What of Wikipedia, that repository of mistakes, lies and half-truths? If a site prides itself on offering free access to everyone, then how does it control what people can say?
I have no answers but here is a suggestion. If you are libelled on an anonymous blog, then I don’t think Google can necessarily be held responsible. But if you complain and the offending item is not removed at once then I think that Google is liable for the defamation.
If this suggestion is implemented, then Google will have to spend some money to set up a large complaints department that vets submissions from bloggers and those who feel that they have been defamed. Wikipedia claims to have done something like this and Google itself seems to accept the position. While it may not have as large a complaints division as we would like, there are instances where it has acted to remove blogs after complaints have been received.
So, to summarize, in moral terms, Google is liable. In real terms, the courts should allow it an opportunity to remove the defamatory item at once. But if Internet hosts persist in taking the line that they have no responsibility, then they should be made to pay.