Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Liability for defamation introduced by search engine

Search engines collect information about stories appearing all over the web, and present them to the searcher with no real context. What if the search engine results present snippets of information in a way that implies something defamatory? This was what happened in Budu v The British Broadcasting Corporation [2010] EWHC 616 (QB) (23 March 2010), where the complaint was firstly that the BBC had published items on its news website and secondly that snippets appearing in a Google search were also defamatory.
To deal with the first problem, the BBC attached
what are known as Loutchansky notices to the articles (see Loutchansky v Times Newspapers [2001] EWCA Civ 1805). These state (they are, of course, still there to see) that Mr Budu denies the allegations in the first story, and that the article is subject to legal proceedings. Anyone searching on the claimant's name would not find the first, allegedly defamatory, article: however, they would find the follow-up ones in which the denial is reported, and could follow a link back to the original story in which his name is not mentioned. The notice serves to put the BBC in the clear, and anyway taking the claimant's "trenchant and detailed factual rebuttal", as reported by the BBC, into account, the judge (Mrs Justice Sharpe) found in favour if the BBC.
She also struck out the claims relating to the republication on Google. The principle that search engines themselves are not liable was established in Metropolitan International Schools Ltd v Designtechnica Corporation & Ors [2009] EWHC 1765 (QB) (a judgment of Mr Justice Eady), and Mrs Justice Sharpe saw no reason for the BBC to bear any liability for the republication: "It would not be appropriate or just in my view to make the publisher of the original webpage responsible in law for a snippet which makes a defamatory allegation (for example, because it detaches certain words from their context) not made in the original webpage itself," she said.

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