Payam Tamiz may not be a name very well known in Silicon Valley, or indeed much beyond his small hometown of Margate, a dilapidated coastal resort not far from London. But the wannabe politician has discovered a way to get the giants of the internet to sit up and take notice.
This week Tamiz made wave with an appeal against Google, which he was trying to sue over defamatory comments about him made on Blogger posting. In a case that goes back to 2011, Tamiz had argued that Google was effectively the publisher of a series of comments calling him, falsely, a thief and a drug dealer, and should have deleted them as soon as they were made aware of them. Google did delete the comments, but only after a five week gap.
Tamiz is familiar with online controversy: one reason he was a lightning rod for angry comments in the first place was because, he stepped down as a local election candidate in 2011 after calling Margate’s women “sluts” on Facebook. And so, when he did not originally win his case — the first judge ruling that Google was not the publisher of the comments — he appealed to a higher court. There Google’s inaction was found to be troubling, though it did not actually overturn the libel ruling itself.
As the Financial Times reported:
Although Lord Justice Richards and Lord Justice Sullivan agreed with the original ruling that Google was not the primary or secondary publisher of the content it hosted, they said it was “at least arguable that some point after notification Google became liable for continued publication of the material”.
The Lords Justice likened the situation to a 1930s court case in which a golf club was held responsible for defamatory material left on its noticeboard because it failed to remove it after it was notified.
Cue the shrill sound of the press screeching into action. “Blogger.com libel case opens door for internet giant being required to monitor users’ posts”, squealed the Daily Mail with barely contained delight. Except, as it outlines in the story, the headline is essentially trolling — Tamiz was denied his libel claim and asked to pay 50 percent of Google’s legal costs: likely to be a tidy sum. And it’s a stretch to suggest, as much commentary does, that this is another step towards internet regulation — asking a company to respond to notices of illegal content may not be popular (just see the DMCA) but it is reasonable to expect them to comply with local jurisdiction.
Still, Tamiz — and the kerfuffle around his case — does show the amount of energy being expended around online libel in Britain right now.
Defamation laws in the U.K. are notoriously harsh, in large part because they lean in favor of the plaintiff and put the burden of proof on the defendant: it’s a case of “prove your comments were true” rather than “prove their comments were false”.
And the precedent for defamation in online publishing stretches back 15 years, to the case of Godfrey v Demon Internet Service, in which a physics lecturer sued an ISP over comments made in a Usenet group it hosted: the ISP settled the case, because a pre-trial ruling intimated that it was potentially culpable since, despite knowledge of the situation, refused to act for 10 days. Although the award was small — just £15,000 in 1997, the equivalent of around $33,000 today — it has laid the groundwork in Britain.
It’s one major reason many media companies employ battalions of comment moderators, and carefully police the comment threads on their own stories.
But remember, we are all media companies now. And that means that we are all open to the same set of rules. There have also been plenty of high-profile cases on Twitter and Facebook against individual users, but so far there has not been much success in taking on platform providers themselves. Just last week a judge in Northern Ireland ruled that while anonymous comments made on Facebook were defamatory, Facebook itself was not liable.
Still, with Godfrey in the background and more and more cases coming along, you can understand why people see Tamiz’s case as another push at a brick in the wall between platforms and publishing.
Yes, everyone’s a media company now: and eventually that will go for Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest as much as it does you and me.