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Demon libel loss could cripple Internet free speech

ISP will appeal High Court ruling

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Demon Internet has lost the latest round in its court case against libelled scientist Laurence Godfrey. But it says it will appeal against the decision, which confirms that an ISP can be held liable for any content posted on the Internet. The ruling could cripple "freedom of expression and electronic trading", Demon says. In today’s pre-trial ruling by in the High Court, Mr. Justice Morland ruled in favour of the plaintiff, who sued Demon for its failure in 1995 to remove forged messages on soc.culture.thai. purporting to be from him. In court, Demon had argued that it should not be held responsible for information posted to and made available from newsgroups that are held on its servers. Worldwide, approximately one million individual articles are posted in 35,000-plus active news groups each day, the ISP estimates. Pointing out out that the libellous poster was an unknown individual from America, who was not a Demon Internet customer, the ISP says the decision may open up the Internet industry to millions of similar "unjustified complaints". Complainants could force ISPs to police and censor any item of information on their servers, Demon says. "The way is open for scurrilous and unsubstantiated claims that would undoubtedly curb the freedom of speech by Internet users." David Furniss, director of Scottish Telecom’s Internet Services (which owns Demon Internet) said: "If comparable complaints had been made to Mr Godfrey in a public forum such as a restaurant he would not be suing the owner of the restaurant for defamation. The only difference in this instance is the lack of clarity in the law and lack of understanding of the parameters of the Internet." In March this year, a UK court awarded Godfrey £15,000 in libel damages from Canadian student Michael Dolenga the real author of the Thai Usenet messages, who posted the piece while he was studying at Cornell University. "I'm not recognizing the British court's jurisdiction and the hell with it", Dolenga said at the time, according to Need to Know, the impeccable source on all things Web and cultural. @reg;

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