March 22, 2006

Beware idle chat

From the Guardian: A man has successfully sued a woman for defaming him in an online chatroom. Apparently courts can force ISPs to hand over personal details of users who libel others or otherwise break the law. This case only applies in the UK but there may well be similar laws in other countries.
A landmark legal ruling ordering a woman to pay £10,000 in damages for defamatory comments posted on an internet chatroom site could trigger a rush of similar lawsuits, a leading libel lawyer warned today.

Michael Smith, a Ukip activist who stood for the Portsmouth North seat last year, became the first person to win damages yesterday after being accused of being a "sex offender" and "racist blogger" on a Yahoo! discussion site.

Mr Smith, 53, from Fareham in Hampshire, sued Tracy Williams, of Oldham, for comments posted after she joined a rightwing online forum in 2002.

Judge Alistair MacDuff said in the high court that Ms Williams was "particularly abusive" and "her statements demonstrated that ... she had no intention of stopping her libellous and defamatory behaviour".

The judge ordered Ms Williams never again to repeat the "unfounded" defamatory remarks, which included calling Mr Smith a "nonce" and accusing him of sexual harassment.

Although ISPs have paid out for hosting defamatory comments, this case is thought to be the first time an individual has been found to have committed libel on a internet chat site.

"The obvious and immediate potential ramification is that there will be more cases like this," said Richard Shillito, a partner at the law firm Farrer & Co. "One sees on these sites particularly unrestrained comments that people make in the heat of the moment without thinking of the legal consequences.

"A lot of people post anonymously but it is possible to find out people's identity. I think people should read this judgment as a warning to be more careful about their comments."
I wonder how this will work out.

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