Content Carries No Legal Liability For Hosts Of Social Media Sites

Eric is a veteran British tech journalist, currently editing ChannelBiz for NetMediaEurope. With expertise in security, the channel, and Britain's startup culture, through his TechBritannia initiative

Google’s Blogger site has been likened to a wall of graffiti in a landmark decision that it cannot be sued for malicious content

Google cannot be held responsible in the UK for libellous or offensive content that appears on its Blogger service. The blogging site allows anyone to set up a platform for airing their views on almost any subject they feel strongly about.

The landmark judgement sprang from an action brought by former Conservative parliamentary candidate Payam Tamiz (pictured). He initiated the defamation suit against Google following wrongful accusations that he was a drug dealer and a thief which appeared in a blog on the company-run site.

English graffiti

The judgement has limits because the judge, Mr Justice Eady, likened the blog to a wall covered in graffiti. The owner of such a wall cannot be considered responsible for the comments painted on the wall, he said, but should take action to erase the messages. To this end, he criticised Google for its “considerable delay” in contacting the “anonymous” blogger and taking down the offensive posting.

In defending the action, Catrin Evans, Google’s legal representative and a specialist in media law, argued that the company was not a publisher but a mere “neutral service provider”. The judge considered this definition and accepted that, at the time of posting, Google had no way to know if the comments were true or not, and acted as a passive platform provider.

The anonymous blog accused Tamiz of dealing in drugs and of stealing from his employers, which the judge underlined had no basis. However, he felt that Google was not the publisher. “I would be prepared to hold that it should not be regarded as a publisher, or even as one who authorises publication, under the established principles of common law,” he said.

The judgement has broader implications for blog sites and social network hosts by confirming that content is not their responsibility as a publisher. Unlike a newspaper or website where content is provided by the owner of the medium, the comments contained in Blogger, in this instance, are the thoughts and views of third parties. For example, although a newspaper can be sued for its content, the papermill and the printers cannot be held responsible and the author is solely to blame.

UPDATE: The final three paragraphs of this article have been removed. They referred to claims from the Evening Standard that Tamiz had been listed as a member of a Facebook group with the name ‘Girls in THANET … you are all slags, hoes, brasses and bheads’ and that his personal webpages contained derogatory references to women.

The Standard later admitted it was wrong publishing an apology. It said: “We accept Mr Tamiz’s assurances that he was never a member or administrator of this group. We also accept that certain remarks appearing on his Facebook page were critical of a specific personal acquaintance of his and not directed at women in general. We apologise to Mr Tamiz for any distress or embarrassment caused.”

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