Name suppression and the internet

The Law Commission has published its report on name suppression. On the issue of name suppression on the internet it makes one recommendation:

Where an Internet service provider or content host becomes aware that they are carrying or hosting information that they know is in breach of a suppression order, it should be an offence for them to fail to remove the information or to fail to block access to it as soon as reasonably practicable. [7.16]

With regards to hosts, this is largely the status quo. It is less clear what an ISP that is “carrying” suppressed information is supposed to do. It would be impractical and ineffective, for example, to require ISPs to block access to sites it didn’t host. Of course, once a suppressed name has been communicated beyond our shores, any restrictions imposed by New Zealand law ceases to have any effect. If a major sports star had name suppression in New Zealand, and it was reported by Australian newspapers, would every ISP in New Zealand be expected to block access to those Australian websites?

The report’s findings on internet issues are brief, and don’t quite grasp the essential difficulties that the internet presents to the name suppression regime.  It states:

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]

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. An invariable side effect is the gross defamation of innocent persons unlucky enough to fit some “non-identifying” criteria not covered by the suppression order. There is every reason to think this phenomenon will become more and more common. In fact, the application of a suppression order, in many cases, simply has the effect of causing more speculation and breaches of the order – a manifestation of the Streisand effect.

The report noted that name suppression is generally more readily available in New Zealand than in Australia or the United Kingdom. One interesting statistic which the report did not appear to have considered, however, is how effective name suppression orders (in high profile cases) have been. Anecdotal evidence as well as personal experience suggests they are increasingly ineffective.

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

Website defamation

A recent case in the UK (MIS Limited v Google) found Google not liable for defamatory statements in its search results (see link to full article below).

The judgment is a pragmatic and well-reasoned one that will reassure website operators. It backs up a similarly pragmatic decision in the New Zealand High Court last year (Sadiq v Baycorp, albeit only a “procedural” decision).

The risk of liability for third-party defamation can be one that lurks at the back of the mind for many website owners. It is certainly an issue to be aware of. On blogs and forums, the risk of someone posting a defamatory comment is probably the main legal risk present. This risk cannot be limited by terms and conditions.

The importance of the Google case is the pragmatic, realistic appoach taken by the UK High Court. It said:

“It is fundamentally important to have in mind that [Google] has no role to play in formulating the search terms. Accordingly, it could not prevent the snippet appearing in response to the user’s request unless it has taken some positive step in advance.”

What the judge is saying is that there is no reasonable way, within its existing website functionality and operational/business model, that Google could prevent the defamation from appearing in its search terms. In contrast, had the judge been so inclined, there are plenty of “unreasonable ways” that Google could have prevented/mitigated the defamation, such as:

  • Having an employee check every search snippet
  • Disable search snippets
  • Allow users to delete a search snippet, etc.

These are clearly unreasonable, disproportionate and would harm Google considerably. The Court found nothing wrong with Google saying, in effect, “this is how our system works, yes it will repeat defamation where it exists, but we cannot help that without significantly changing our technology and business model.”

The Court took a similarly pragmatic approach to the notice-and-takedown process:

“It may well be that [Google’s] ‘notice and take down’ procedure has not operated as rapidly as [the plaintiff] would wish, but it does not follow as a matter of law that between notification and ‘take down’ [Google] becomes or remains liable as a publisher of the offending material. While efforts are being made to achieve a ‘take down’ in relation to a particular URL, it is hardly possible to fix [Google] with liability on the basis of authorisation, approval or acquiescence.”

A very useful statement to have on the judicial record. This compares with the implied demand by the plaintiff that, in effect, any allegation of defamation should be met by an immediate, no-questions-asked take-down by Google, followed by a fuller review.

Full article:

Avoiding defamation for third party web content