The Law Commission of Ontario recently held a conference as part of a consultation process for its “Defamation Law in the Internet Age” project. The event provided scope for continuing the conversation around reform of defamation laws in the context of fast-moving and far-reaching developments in technology and social values.
The panel on “Responsibility for Defamation and the Problem of Intermediaries” tackled the issue of liability of internet service providers (“ISPs”) for disseminating or maintaining defamatory content online. Scholarly and industry-savvy panelists grappled with traditional concepts and doctrines in an attempt to formulate a new theory of responsibility for ISPs. Three routes were proposed by the panelists: (1) ad hoc inquiries into fair balance, (2) adoption of the least invasive means and proportionate measures; and (3) revamping the publication rule.
No one is certain that these efforts will resolve the problem of online intermediaries, so looking to the courts’ current take on the matter may hint at additional existing routes and at the likelihood of success of the efforts proposed by the panelists.
Christina Angelopoulos, lecturer at the University of Cambridge, discussed the different notice regimes applicable to ISPs in relation to uploading and downloading content of a user. A novel system of “notice-and-fair-balance” was proposed with a view to reconcile fundamental rights of the different the stakeholders in the triadic relationship between the injured party, the intermediary, and the internet user. The panelist argued that freedom of expression, the right to communicate and to conduct a business, as well as reputational rights, are of equal caliber and should co-exist alongside each other, without a priori recognition that one trumps the other. A desirable solution, she noted, is to conduct ad hoc inquiries into what, in the particular circumstances, represents a fair balance between rights and compromises.
Regardless of the speaker’s endeavor to shed light on what fair balance might mean and how it can be conceptualized, she conceded that striking a balance is easier said than done and that it is most often seen as an empty slogan unlikely to provide real solutions. The current position of North American courts on online intermediaries’ liability (see Equustek v Google and Hassel v Bird) in fact implies that courts are looking beyond fair balance in these circumstances; their primary goal, instead, is preventing multiplication of wrongdoing on the internet.
Bram Abramson, Open Web Fellow with the Mozilla foundation, pointed that the traditional innocent dissemination doctrine underlying the liability regime applicable to ISPs still leaves constitutional questions unaddressed. To some degree, there is still a restraint on the ISPs’ ability to communicate freely, disseminate information, and carry on business, because the system subdues ISPs to liability unless they take down content upon notice. This, Bram argued, does not represent the least invasive means to remediate the dissemination of defamatory content, as a chilling effect is almost certain in these circumstances and is an incentive to removing content to avoid exposure to liability. Engaging proportionality may thus keep ISPs from bearing responsibility for defamation when other efficient and least invasive measures are available. In this context, the creation of a regulatory framework that allows the ISPs to act autonomously without the involvement of authorities, as well as other mechanisms for online dispute resolution, seem reasonable routes to follow.
This view, however, is not aligned with the current take of North American courts in regard to online intermediaries’ liability. Although free expression may seem compromised in some instances, Canadian and American courts agree that sustaining freedom of expression values does not require facilitation of unlawful acts on the internet. As with the use of Norwich orders, the courts appear to have signalled an intent to create a “duty to assist” a person wronged with no resort other than relying on non-parties who are not themselves guilty of wrongdoing. As explained in fullness here, a principled rationale for granting orders against intermediaries seems to be needed to bring the rule of law to bear on the Internet to rein in illegal activity, to remediate wrongful actions taken under the cloak of anonymity, and to enforce ignored takedown requests and orders (more here).
As to the creation of more proportionate means of dispute resolution, there seems to be no restriction imposed by the courts on autonomous mechanisms for more efficient responses.
Revamping the Publication Rule
The breadth of activity captured by the traditional publication rule, as Professor Hilary Young of the University of New Brunswick noted, is too vast, capturing even the narrowest scope of ISPs’ activities in linking or highlighting defamatory content. As a result, she argues that a new theory is necessary so that ISPs are not easily liable as defamers when they never created defamatory content. Professor Young proposed that the new concept of publication encompass a knowing involvement in publishing the relevant words (per Weaver v Corcoran, 2015 BCSC 165; Niemela v Malamas, 2015 BCSC 1024).
Re-conceptualizing publication, however, does not seem to resolve the problem of online intermediaries either. To the extent that the courts have signalled that their primary goal is to prevent further dissemination of illegalities in general in the internet space, the determination of who to attribute blameworthiness to loses relevance where a multitude of actors may be involved. As a result, whether or not ISPs can be deemed publishers in a strict sense will unlikely interfere in how ISPs should be engaged in halting defamatory content in the internet.
The Bottom Line
In Canada, Equustek brought about a fundamental shift in the parameters of the debate around online intermediaries liability. As a result, traditional concerns involving notice regimes, the breadth of the concept of publication, and the doctrine of innocent dissemination became less relevant. Equustek signals, in broad strokes, that the courts are unlikely to allow actors to avoid the rule of law in the internet space. This approach does not require intermediaries to decide which content is defamatory but it does engage ISPs in a duty to assist a wronged party in response to harm caused by unreachable wrongdoers. The decision may be unpalatable for advocates of free expression and unrestrained right to communicate. However, it represents the courts’ view on how to rein in illegal activity in the context of fast-moving and far-reaching developments in technology and social values. This view might be worth considering when we think about reform of defamation laws.
Bruna D. Kalinoski is a contributing editor for the IPilogue and holds an LLM from the Osgoode Professional Development Program at York University.