The ruling confirmed that websites must act on complaints reasonably quickly to maintain their status as mere “facilitators” rather than publishers, which would expose them to greater liability for libellous comments posted online.
The appeal was brought by Payam Tamiz, a former Conservative local election candidate (and law student) who sued Google over comments made on a site hosted by its Blogger.com website that labelled him a drug dealer and a thief. Tamiz made a written complaint to Google about the comments made on the London Muslim blog in early July 2011. Google forwarded Tamiz’s letter to the blogger and it was removed on 14 August 2011.
In dismissing the appeal, the Court found that although the five-week delay was “somewhat dilatory”, it was “not outside the bounds of a reasonable response”. Google had a responsibility to remove the smears once they were complained of by the ‘victim’. The court found that it was “highly improbable that any significant number of readers” would have seen the comments in the period from Tamiz contacting Google and their removal.
In the first instance, Tamiz failed to satisfy the High Court that Google should be treated as a publisher which would make it liable for the comments posted on its website. Upholding the earlier decision, Lord Justice Richards commented that, “even if Google should properly be seen as a facilitator, the mere provider of a gigantic notice board on which others published defamatory material, in my judgment it must also at least be arguable that at some point after notification became liable for continued publication of the material complained of”.
Along with Lord Dyson and Lord Justice Sullivan, the Court found in Google’s favour and Mr Tamiz now faces tens of thousands of pounds in costs. However, some of the comments made in the judgment suggest that Google and other social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook have a responsibility to act quickly if potentially defamatory comments are posted by users and they are alerted to it.
By equating a blogging site to a “gigantic notice board” enabling people to express their views, providers must take some responsibility for posts containing potential libellous content. The veil of anonymity afforded by blogging can be lifted by the service provider, who will often have more detailed information and be in a position to intervene.
Lessons can be taken from this judgment, which reaffirms that the size of the audience, speed in which a comment is removed and harm caused will be taken into account when considering social media related actions, whether they are in the civil or criminal courts, or even in the workplace.