Not-so-super injunctions

The row in Britain over the naming of footballer Ryan Giggs online (and subsequently in Parliament),  in contravention of a “super-injunction”, raises the same issues as New Zealand has experienced recently: can injunctions and other forms of name suppression work in the age of social networking?

British PM David Cameron appears to have accepted the reality of the situation:

“It’s not fair on the newspapers if all the social media can report this and the newspapers can’t,” he said. “So the law and the practice has got to catch up with how people consume media today.”

This is a strong indication that the UK will change its law (or least its policy) on injunctions. In New Zealand, the Government and officials have not yet grasped the nettle. In 2009, the New Zealand Law Commission published a detailed report on name suppression in this country. It noted:

Where information as to the identity of someone appearing before a court is already in the public domain, it will not generally be appropriate to grant name suppression. The law will not undertake an exercise in futility, which would bring its own authority and processes into disrepute. [3.65]

However, the Commission did not really address the issue of internet publication. As I wrote at the time:

Yet in many recent cases involving name suppression, that is precisely what has occurred. Twitter, Facebook and other local and international web sites are routinely used to blithely report (or more often, speculate on) the identity of the individual… There is every reason to think this phenomenon will become more and more common… If the law is not to permit exercises in futility, this issue may need to be revisited again before long.

There can be very good reasons for name suppression and other forms of injunctions. But it is not a question of right or wrong anymore. The fact is that such orders can (and therefore will) be made a mockery of, with relative impunity online. An English judge’s issuing of an injunction against Twitter users, and Ryan Gigg’s now-futile attempt to sue anonymous Twitter users, seem distinctly King Canute-esque.

Whale Oil case: lessons for bloggers

My brief post yesterday noted Judge Harvey’s starting proposition that the Police v Slater case was not about the merits of name suppression orders in the 21st century, but was simply about whether the defendant’s conduct breached the law as it stands (albeit in a novel circumstance). And the judge got it right.* But the judgment also provided some useful observations of more general application. Some of these include:

While the case involved posts made by the blog owner himself, what is the position of comments by third parties? Judge Harvey noted:

… most administrators or supervisors of blog sites or those occupying the position of Mr Slater must hold some responsibility for the comments that are posted. Mr Slater in his DVD interview indicated that he exercised such supervisory power over his blog site. He would allow comments or postings of material with which he agreed. This indicates that he is able to delete or remove material or posts from the blog site. This would put Mr Slater in the position of a person of responsibility similar to that of the moderator in the case of Stratton Oakmont Inc v Prodigy Services Co.

The Prodigy case involved defamation, but the principle is the same: a person who knowingly permits defamatory, suppressed or other unlawful content to remain on a website under their control (or otherwise “assumes responsibility” for the material) may be held liable for that material. See my article here and posts here for more information.

On the other hand, the position where the website operator has no knowledge of unlawful material will usually be quite different. Recently, there have been a number of instances where Courts have taken a pragmatic view where website operators have little or no control over what their users do, or where attempting to introduce such controls would be very difficult. E.g. for a situation involving IP infringment see my post here and for a defamation situation see here. A similar situation arose today, with a US judge finding that eBay was not liable for its customers using its service to sell counterfeit jewelery. So lets be clear, the case does not mean that anyone operating a blog may be liable for what someone else posts. But for blogs with active moderation, or if the operator becomes aware of certain material posted on their site (or “ought to have” been aware of it), care should be taken, and editorial discretion exercised. Which is just common sense, and how many blogs operate anyway.

Whale’s lawyer also advanced an argument that, because the Whale Oil site is hosted on a server in San Antonio, Texas, there was no “publication” or relevant act in New Zealand, and therefore no crime under New Zealand law. Nice try, but with a judge as well versed in such matters – Judge Harvey literally wrote the book on internet law in New Zealand and teaches it at Auckland University – no cigar:

The reality of the situation therefore is that Mr Slater’s blog is available free of charge to internet users in New Zealand who may and do access it from time to time and therefore publication takes place in New Zealand… The evidence before me is that the material was able to be read and comprehended in New Zealand (thus constituting a publication) and the material was uploaded on the Whaleoil blog by Mr Slater present in New Zealand at the time. Thus acts necessary for publication – the creation of the material, the posting of the material and the availability of the material to be comprehended by readers in New Zealand – all took place within the jurisdiction.

What about a blog that doesn’t carry unlawful (suppressed, etc) material, but merely links to it? The judge noted the US DeCSS case, but left the question open for another day, saying:

“Following from that is the [hypothetical situation of a] New Zealand based blogger who may embed a link to the off-shore blogsite which contains the suppressed name. One should be cautious in such circumstances that one does not become involved in “publishing” by way of hypertext link… I have no doubt this point or something like it will fall to be decided in this country in some future case”.

Whale’s lawyer had attempted to argue that blogging was intrinsically “different”, and mentioning a suppressed name did not fall within the corners of the Criminal Justice Act definitions. He had also tried to argue that the Criminal Justice Act, passed in 1985, could not apply to blogs (which were not contemplated at that time) and must be limited to traditional news media. The judge rejected these lines of argument, saying:

Conceptually a blog is no different from any other form of mass media communication especially since it involves the internet which anyone who has an internet connection is able to access… It is publication. It is made to a wide audience. It goes beyond a private conversation over the telephone or, a coffee table or at a dinner party. It is the mass media element that accompanies the internet that places the blog within the same conceptual framework as any other form of mass media publication… In the age of mass communication and the internet, where everyone may be a publisher, that approach cannot be sustained. The law must continue to speak.

* So I have no doubt the decision here is correct, based on the current law and what has been reported. It has been interesting to read the comments (on Kiwiblog for example) of some, who should know better, but who are most upset that the judge did not take it on himself to legislate from the bench and reform the “broken” suppression regime and help bloggers to “expose crims”.  However as I wrote last year, I do think the law on suppression needs to change to a more open system. That is both desirable and inevitable, and parliament should act sooner rather than later on this.

Blogging and Name Suppression

Blogger Cameron Slater (a.k.a. Whale Oil) was convicted today in the District Court of breaching suppression orders on his blog. By happy coincidence (or maybe not?) the country’s most tech-savvy judge, Judge David Harvey, heard the case and his detailed and expositional judgment is available here. Judge Harvey has certainly delivered on this judgment and it’s worth a read. He makes the following key comment at the very outset:

This case is about whether or not a person behaved in a manner that breached the law and in doing so utilised some of the communications technologies associated with the Internet. It is not a case about whether or not the law should allow nonpublication orders. That debate must take place in another forum.

A lot of comment has been made about the Whale Oil case, and much of it centred on whether name suppression should be available. Except for those who believe in a particularly activist judiciary, such questions are not for the Court to decide. Similarly there has also been much comment on the possible futility of suppression orders in the internet era. Following the release of the Law Commission’s report on name suppression last year I said that:

If the law is not to permit exercises in futility, this issue [name suppression] may need to be revisited again before long.

Judge Harvey also addressed this issue, rightly saying:

Up until such time as the legislature decides to repeal or amend s 140 of the Criminal Justice Act 1985, orders made by the Court for non-publication are expected to receive compliance and the assumption is that citizens will abide by Court orders. If they do not they may expose themselves to possible prosecution or Contempt of Court proceedings.

Except possibly in extreme cases, it is not for the Court to decide that a statutory provision is no longer effective and shouldn’t be applied.

Read part 2 here.

Trade Me, but don’t defame me

A defamation lawsuit against an eBay buyer who left negative feedback has received comment from New Zealand defamation experts:

“The law is no different if someone writes it online or in a newspaper” – William Akel of law firm Simpson Grierson.

“People get away with an awful lot online and it’s been going on for a while but I haven’t seen a flood of complaints. We don’t live in a litigious environment.” – David Campbell of Campbell Law.

Victoria University defamation expert Professor Bill Atkin said the online community should remember “the wisest course is often the cautious one”.

This is good advice, although people should not be afraid to state (non-recklessly) their genuine honest opinions. Free speech is protected in New Zealand via two laws. First, section 14 of the Bill of Rights 1990 (an unsatisfactory piece of legislation) states:

Freedom of expression: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.

Second, section 10 of the Defamation Act 1992 allows a defence of honest opinion. However, this is not completely unrestricted and generally requires that:

  • The opinion is based on true facts;
  • The comments must be reconisable as opinion; and
  • The opinion is genuinely held.

Two important facts about the eBay lawsuit are:

  1. The alleged defamatory comment was: “Bad seller, he has the ethics of a used car salesman“.
  2. The buyer’s listing said “We cannot give you any guarantees and must offer it on an as-is, where-is basis only”.

It will remain to be seen whether the claim succeed, bearing in mind that defamation law in the US is relatively restricted.

Possibly the buyer’s mistake was to comment too broadly on the seller’s ethics. It can be safely assumed he is expressing his opinion on that point, but such a broad statement is open to allegations of defamation. Of course feedback comments are supposed to be very brief, but if the buyer had taken a little more care the situation would likely have been avoided. For example, the buyer could have said “I was very misled by this seller’s listing.”  That would be much more difficult to attack because it is a comment on the buyer’s own feelings, not a sweeping accusation of dodgy ethics.

In the case of Trade Me / eBay feedback, it will also be interesting to see whether a defence of consent (section 22 Defamation Act 1992) could protect (or limit) otherwise defamatory feedback. When users buy or sell on auction sites, they know that feedback will almost always be given. Users know the purpose of the feedback is to share trading experiences – good, bad or neutral. A user could not reasonably claim that they never expected an upset trader to post critical feedback as “their side of the story”, whether based on correct or incorrect facts. Responding to critical comments is also provided for and expected.

It is also worth noting, in the eBay case, that the plaintiff (the seller) is a Miami lawyer, and the defendant claims to have spent USD$7,000 fighting the $15,000 suit. In the highly litigious United States (where even a dry-cleaned pair of trousers can turn into a $67 million lawsuit) this is relatively small. In New Zealand, which is not litigious, in most cases it would probably be completely uneconomic for an occasional, sole trader to make a defamation claim. The best first step in the case of unfair or defamatory conduct would be to contact the website in the first instance. Trade Me has policies on feedback on its website.

Changing expectations of privacy

The BBC reports on how the expanding use of online social networking is redefining “reasonable expectations” of privacy for everyone. It cites Dr Kieron O’Hara of the University of Southhampton:

“As more private lives are exported online, reasonable expectations are diminishing. When our reasonable expectations diminish, as they have, by necessity our legal protection diminishes”.

The reason is that the law attempts to balance the “reasonable expectations” of privacy with other considerations, such as freedom of information and free speech. In New Zealand, the Bill of Rights Act 1990, section 14, enshrines this freedom (as best it can, given the unsatisfactory state of that Act):

“14. Freedom of expression: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form”.

That right remains strong, but there is no doubt that “reasonable expectations” of privacy are rapidly shifting. In the article Dr O’Hara gives the example of an embarrassing photo taken at a party:

“A decade ago, he said, there would have been an assumption that it might be circulated among friends. But now the assumption is that it may well end up on the internet and be viewed by strangers.”

Another prime example is Google’s Street View. A decade or two ago there may have been some expectation of privacy when walking in the street (although as Katrine Evans of the University of Wellington, now Assistant Privacy Commissioner, notes there is a “considerable body of [precedent] which states that innocuous photographs of people in public places will not attract the protection of the common law”).

Today, Street View routinely photographs people in the streets; there is no doubt that this sort of occurrence will be a permanent part of our lives in some shape or form. Street View has various privacy measures in place (e.g. blurring faces) but there have been cases of people caught in compromising situations and a number of court cases have been fought or are pending.

A while ago I blogged (Don’t expect privacy in cyberspace) about a US case where a girl’s public MySpace rant – ostensibly intended only for her friends – was republished in a newspaper. She claimed a breach of privacy. The Court said:

“[The student’s] affirmative act [of publishing her post on MySpace] made her article available to any person with a computer and thus opened it to the public eye. Under these circumstances, no reasonable person would have had an expectation of privacy regarding the published material”.

The US Court’s ruling was quite sensible, however it highlights the point that not only are expectations of privacy rapidly changing, but the avenues for disseminating private information (and thereby possibly redefining what constitutes reasonable expectations) are also expanding. This is happening at the same time that the law in many common law jurisdictions (e.g. UK, US, Canada, Australia & New Zealand) is still relatively unsettled and developing. The societal changes of “the Facebook generation” has already been recognised in data loss / information security incidents, and is equally relevant in privacy law.

It is worth noting that in New Zealand’s current leading case on privacy (Hosking v Runting [2005] 1 NZLR 1) the actual existence of a tort of privacy was only accepted by a 3-2 decision. Since that time, other jurisdictions have expanded their privacy laws more liberally than the Hosking case’s relatively narrow scope. Most recently the 2008 Max Mosley case in the UK (argued on the basis of breach of confidence and “unauthorised disclosure of personal information”) has thrown up a number of related issues likely to be explored in a future New Zealand case.

Due to reasons of cost, substantial court cases involving breaches of privacy are rare. It seems likely that, whatever currently a “reasonable expectation” of privacy is, it will have changed again by the time the next case is argued.