The laws relating to defamation apply equally to material posted on the Internet as they do to articles in newspapers and magazines. It is therefore risky to post comments that can be construed as defamatory on the Internet. Indeed, it can be considered that allowing such material onto the web is riskier than allowing it to be published in print, because the web has a ‘whole world’ audience. A recent case shows the sorts of problems that can arise.
The European Court of Justice upheld a claim by a French actor that information put on an English website (in this case the website of the Sunday Mirror) negatively affected his reputation in France.
The action was brought in France, where the privacy rules are much stricter than in the UK. Mirror Group Newspapers sought a ruling that the French court could not adjudicate on something published in English on an English website.
The Court ruled that an action can be brought in a person’s ‘centre of interests’ or where they reside, not just in the country in which the publisher resides or the item was published. Accordingly, the actor was entitled to seek compensation for the damage to his reputation by bringing proceedings in France.
The practical effect of this is that where something is published which may have a negative impact on someone else’s reputation and they are connected with another country, thought needs to be given to the law in that country as what may be fair comment in one jurisdiction may be defamatory in another.
The ruling has implications for businesses as well as private individuals. One problem that can arise is that if defamatory material is published by an employee in connection with their employment, the employer may be held to be vicariously liable for any reputational damage to a third party caused by the employee’s action.