Trouble in the Blog O’Sphere

Technorati logo, via TechnoratiIt all began innocently enough: just before Christmas, Sunday Times journalist John Burns wrote a piece lamenting the shortcomings of blogging in Ireland. Leading bloggers naturally begged to differ. A month later, the spat was picked up by Trevor Butterworth writing on, who noted that “it’s hard to think of a free country more suited to blogging than Ireland”. By the same token, it’s at least as hard to think of a country more given to litigation; and the point was illustrated by a story retailed almost en passant in Butterworth’s piece:

As one journalist told me, Ireland’s media is currently abuzz over a “confidential” legal settlement against a blogger, who allegedly had to pay almost $140,000 in damages for a libelous post, seen by few, swiftly purged from the site, and readily apologized for.

This was intriguing. By the end of the week, John Burns in the Sunday Times had the full story:

A blogger has agreed a €100,000 settlement after libelling Niall Ó Donnchú, a senior civil servant, and his girlfriend Laura Barnes. It is the first time in Ireland that defamatory material on a blog has resulted in a pay-out. … In December 1, 2006, a blogger who styles himself as Ardmayle posted a comment about the couple … Following a legal complaint, he took down the blog and in February 2007 he posted an apology which had been supplied by Ó Donnchú’s and Barnes’ lawyer … However, the pair subsequently issued separate proceedings. It is understood that the €100,000 settlement was agreed shortly before the case was due before the High Court.

Indeed, there had been quite a detailed report at the time in the Sunday Independent; and in the last week, many blogs have pored over the story.

There’s nothing new in online defamation; the same basic legal principles apply online as they do offline; the medium may change, but the legal consequences of the message remain the same. But the story does raise some interesting legal issues. Mark Coughlan on pointed out that, before the storm blew up this week, Ardmayle had been “little known, to say the least”, and he quite rightly queried the actual damage the blog had done to the plaintiff’s reputations. UCD law lecturer TJ McIntyre picked up that point:

The level of damages in defamation reflects the extent of publication – i.e. the extent to which the defamatory material was actually read. This is not (despite the best efforts of plaintiffs’ lawyers) the same as the extent to which it might have been read. Consequently (leaving aside other factors such as the gravity of the allegations) damages should be greatly reduced where the audience can be shown to be negligible. Potential readability worldwide notwithstanding.

For him, therefore, the case highlights the importance of keeping good server logs to counter the all-too-easy assumption that “availability online automatically equals a mass audience”.

Ireland’s libel laws have recently been overhauled by the Defamation Act, 2009, which came into force on 1 January this year. Section 31(4) provides that the court in a defamation action shall have regard to a range of factors in making an award of general damages, including:

(b) the means of publication of the defamatory statement including the enduring nature of those means,
(c) the extent to which the defamatory statement was circulated, … [and]
(f) the importance to the plaintiff of his or her reputation in the eyes of particular or all recipients of the defamatory statement …

These considerations tend to reinforce TJ’s point about the importance of keeping good server logs. It is hard to tell from the reports whether any of the Act’s defences might have availed the blogger, though the new defence of fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest, whilst hobbled, may have done.

The Act is a welcome, but incomplete, reform – incomplete not least because it takes little account of the increasing trend towards online communication. In particular, it does not attempt to achieve inter-operability between its restatement of the traditional defence of innocent publication and the defence provided to intermediary service providers by the implementation of the E-Commerce Directive.

Finally, there are questions of the compatibility of this kind of outcome with the free speech provisions of the Irish Constitution and of the European Convention on Human Rights. There are, in particular, emerging arguments that various European Courts have clearly moved to grant traditional press freedoms not only to traditional media but also to online actors such as bloggers engaged in “the creation of forums for public debate”. This might not have protected Ardmayle’s obscure blog, but if – contrary to the views John Burns expressed in the article at this beginning of this post – the Blog O’Sphere continues to develop as a vibrant forums for public debate, then future bloggers in Ardmayle’s shoes may be able to rely on the Constitution and the Convention. Until then, we will all have to tread softly.

Reposted from Index on Censorship.