When you actually talk to John Bunt, it’s me-groups-legal-pitfalls-with-postingshard to imagine him getting so angry about a Usenet group flame session, as to take the other parties to court. But he did. He also took their ISPs to court for carrying their libels.
The case isn’t settled, yet, but the case against the ISPs was thrown out, on the grounds that ISPs are not “publishers” – a complicated shift in the way the digital age views these things. Time was, when WH Smith refused to carry copies of Private Eye because to carry a publication containing a libel is to be guilty of that libel.
That dates back to a Noble Lord of the 19th century, who won a libel action against a book, causing the publisher to be convicted. Some years later, he found a second hand copy of that book in a second hand book shop, and sued them – and won. This meant that people sued WH Smiths – not because they disliked the bookseller, but because Private Eye was poor, and WH Smith had plenty of money.
Bunt’s case means that we now know the law, in the UK, on ISPs and libel. It doesn’t mean that the law is simple, or easy to understand! The case of Godfrey vs Demon back in 2000 means that if you are an ISP who knows about a libellous posting, and someone can prove you knew about it, then you have a choice: take it down, and escape legal penalty – or leave it there, and become a publisher.
I spent some time chatting to Bunt after the case, and he says that he’s not a vindictive man – which isn’t much surprise, perhaps. But what’s interesting, is that he says he doesn’t think the people he’s suing are, either.
“When this latest thing started, my friends and I assumed that it was a bunch of kids, winding us up, and getting out of hand,” he said. It seems they aren’t; they are adult, savvy people who seem, somehow, to have spurred each other on to greater and greater excesses. It seems that at least one of them actually became so heated, he refused to accept a legal injunction to stop repeating the alleged libels, and began attacking the Judge who granted the injunction.
This sort of case seems to be on the increase. “Anyone with web access and a quick temper can find themselves facing a lawsuit,” commented Shannon Proudfoot of Ottawa newspaper, Star Phoenix. Apparently, people who are new to the art of publishing – bloggers, to some extent, but newsgroup flamers, more often – don’t realise that there are legal limits to what you can say about someone else in public.
The problem is that on the Internet, you can flame someone anonymously. What Bunt has shown is that it’s pretty hard to do that if a lawsuit is involved; in those circumstances, your ISP will lift the veil.