Internet and online defamation in the UK
What is internet defamation?
In a nutshell, defamation is an untrue statement which causes or is likely to cause serious harm to someone’s reputation. If the subject is a business, then the statement must cause or be likely to cause it serious financial loss.
There are a number of defences available to the maker of the statement including that it is substantially true; or that is an honest opinion (which has some factual basis); or that it was made in special “privileged” circumstances (e.g., reports of court hearings or of things said in Parliament); or that the publisher reasonably thought that it was in the public interest.
Internet defamation simply refers to defamation in an online context, which is of course very common these days.
What’s the difference between defamation, libel and slander?
People are often confused about this. In fact, libel and slander are simply the two kinds of defamation. Libel is defamation in written form. So, defamatory comments on websites and in emails are examples of internet libel. Whereas slander is defamation in verbal form, e.g. as contained an audio recording.
What is “malicious falsehood”?
This overlaps with defamation. It occurs where someone makes a “malicious” statement that causes damage to someone else. “Malicious” means that the maker of the statement knew that it wasn’t true or didn’t bother to check. It could arise, for example, where a business poses as a customer of a competitor in order to post a bogus negative review. But, unlike with defamation, the statement doesn’t have to damage someone’s reputation – e.g., by falsely claiming that a rival architect doesn’t handle a particular kind of work in order to steal the rival’s clients.
Who can be liable for libellous content online?
Obviously, whoever wrote the libellous post, blog, comment etc is primarily responsible. But others can be on the hook too. For example, a web host may be liable if it doesn’t remove such material within a reasonable time after being given notice. However, under UK law, operates of websites have a defence if they didn’t post the defamatory statement on the site – provided they react correctly to a notice of complaint from a complainant claiming that it can’t identify the person who posted the statement. For more, see removal of defamatory material from websites.
In order to remove defamatory content, the key is to work out where best to apply legal pressure.