Defamation And The Internet
What can you do when someone publishes something about you that hurts your reputation?
Any words, pictures or other information which, when passed on to somebody else, lowers a person’s reputation in the public’s eye are defamatory and the person harmed may begin a lawsuit. The person harmed must only prove that the information was communicated to someone else and could have a defamatory meaning.
Once someone has made a case for defamation, the person they claim against must establish one of the following defenses:
- Truth – If the information communicated on balance is true.
- Fair Comment – The statements made consist of an opinion on a matter of public interest and is based on well known true facts. This is true as long as both the comments are actually believed or reasonably could be believed and that they do not deal with criminal activity.
- Privilege – In some cases the law will provide some comments with special protection. Examples are witnesses in court, debates in government.
- Consent – If the person harmed has consented to the defamatory communication.
- Other Limited Exceptions – Such as a non-malicious employment reference.
A lawsuit may begin whether or not the person causing the defamation actually wrote the words or merely published someone else’s words.
The issue of defamation on the Internet is becoming significant.
An Internet service provider who hosts web sites may be a publisher and therefore liable for a defamation claim. At the moment, the Ontario Courts have not provided a definitive answer on this subject. This type of situation may be found to be similar to a librarian with defamatory works in their library. In the librarian’s case, there may be liability if the librarian makes defamatory works available and has reasonable grounds to be aware of their content. If you become aware of defamatory comments on a web site, you should contact the Internet service provider and advise them. They will then arguably have an obligation to remove the defamatory content or be liable for defamation.
Since the Internet has no borders, another significant issue is where to sue. Recent cases indicate that people outside of Canada have a right to protect their reputations in Canada and can therefore sue in Canada. Canadians can sue foreign publications provided those publications are also distributed in Canada. Suing someone who publishes in another country will depend on the laws of that country. This is a problem when a web site is hosted offshore. On the other hand, people publishing statements on the Internet have a real concern as to which country’s laws they follow, where they can be sued, etc. The law continues to evolve in this area and it is impossible to say what liability a person may have for statements made on the Internet. It’s best to be cautious.