Facebook Friends: 3rd Party Comments and Publication for Defamation

When will the host of a Facebook page become a publisher of comments by third parties for the purposes of a defamation action? This was the issue which confronted Courtney J in the case of Wishart v Murray.( HC AK CIV-2012-404-001701 19 March 2013)

The background to the case was this. In a high profile case a young man by the name of Chris Kahui was charged with the murder of his twin baby children. He was acquitted after a highly publicised trial. During the trial he suggested that the babies’ mother, Macsyna King, had inflicted the fatal injuries. Although a coroner later found that the twins had died while in Mr Kahui’s sole care, this suggestion retained some currency in the public arena.

The plaintiff, Ian Wishart, an investigative journalist and writer, wrote a book about the case entitled Breaking Silence. Ms King collaborated in the writing. As publication of the book became imminent  the first defendant, Christopher Murray, established a Facebook page called “Boycott the Macsyna King Book”. He posted comments on Twitter and on the Facebook page criticising Mr Wishart and Ms King.

Mr Wishart commenced defamation proceedings against Mr and Mrs Murray. One of the causes of action related to comments made by third parties that were posted on the Facebook page. The cause of action could only succeed if (among other things) Mr Murray was found to be a publisher of those postings. Mr Murray maintained that, as a mere host of a Facebook page, he could not, at law, be the publisher of statements that he did not author. Mr. Murray applied to strike out this cause of action (along with others with which this post is not concerned).

The issues to be determined were these:

1. What is the correct legal test  for determining whether the host of a Facebook page is the publisher of statements posted on it by other users.

2. Whether, on the facts as pleaded and the non-contentious evidence that was before the Court  Mr Wishart had a tenable case in respect of Mr Murray’s ability as the publisher of comments posted by others on the Facebook page.

The Role Played by Mr Murray

The Court first considered Mr. Murray’s role and the creation of the Facebook page. Mr. Murray outlined the position in his affidavit in this way:

4. While I created the Facebook page, the site is not mine as such. Facebook offers users the ability to create pages, but retains ownership of the service base and ultimate control over the contents. Content on these pages is published using Facebook processes.

5. Comments can be posted on Facebook pages by other Facebook users. The creator of any individual Facebook page is unable to exercise meaningful editorial control over comments before they are posted. That is, there is no function on Facebook by which a site creator can vet comments before they are published.

6. It is correct, however, that a creator of a Facebook page has some control over comments published on the page as he/she can, once aware of comments published, retrospectively remove individual comments and block specific Facebook users to prevent them from publishing further comments.
7. It should be noted, howeve, that a block on a user functions only in respect of the relevant Facebook account. It cannot prevent the relevant individual from establishing a new Facebook account and post further comments.

8. Contrary to the plaintiff’s allegations I did at no point encourage, invite or consent to, abusive, threatening or defamatory comments being posted on the site and I did take steps to moderate any such comments that I became aware of.

9. The information section included my Twitter account to allow people to contact me. Once it became apparent that some comments posted were abusive I posted comments on the site myself asking that viewers report such comments to me via the Twitter account so that I could block the relevant users. I received around ten reports that way and acted on all of them.

10. I also regularly visited the site, read comments published on it and blocked users who posted abusive or clearly defamatory comments. All in all, I banned 50 users from the page so as to moderate abusive comments.

11. The site attracted some 250,000 in total, which was far more than I ever expected. As a result, it was increasingly difficult to review them all and remove all potentially abusive or defamatory comments. Facebook also uses an auto-update function. This means that the site is constantly updated with new comments while you view it, which refreshes the screen in a way that makes it very time consuming and difficult to keep track of existing comments when they are so frequently being supplemented. Given the number of comments and the speed with which they were posted, this made it slow and difficult to review historic comments and block relevant users.

12. I finally took the site off line on or around 13 August 2011

In a further affidavit Mr. Murray acknowledged that he had blocked Mr. Wishart’s ability to post comments on the site and explained it in this way:

However the purpose of doing this was not to prevent Mr Wishart from telling his side of the story. His comments, and those of some of his supporters generated a significant number of responses, including some abusive and inappropriate comments. Once it became apparent to me that this occurred I blocked Mr Wishart and a small number of his vocal supporters as a way to discourage misuse of the page. To keep the debate as balanced as possible I posted links to pages setting out Mr Wishart’s version of events (see for example p36 of exhibit A5 to Mr Wishart’s affidavit in support of his statement of claim dated 28 March 2012).

At para 24 of his 30 May 2012 affidavit Mr Wishart alleges that he alerted me to alleged inaccuracies on the Facebook page at a time when I had fewer than 200 people registered on the page. I am uncertain as to what Mr Wishart means by “registered”. I do, however, have no recollection of Mr Wishart contacting me about any inaccuracies. In any event, I do not believe that any statement of which I am the author is defamatory of Mr Wishart. I also blocked any users who posted abusive or otherwise inappropriate comments as soon as possible after becoming aware of such comments having been posted.

What is the Test to Determine Whether the Facebook Host is Publisher of Other Users” Statements

The Judge stated the general principle that a person who participates in or contributes to the publication of another person’s defamatory statement is, prima facie, liable as a publisher, subject to the defence of innocent dissemination and which was stated in the case of Emmens v Pottle (1885) 16 QB 170. However in that case – which dealt with the sale of a newspaper that contained libellous material – the defendants did not know that the paper contained a libel. They were unaware of the content of the medium that they were disseminating. Lord Esher in Emmens made the following remark which Courtney J considered significant.

I am not prepared to say that it would be sufficient for them to show that they did not know of the particular libel … Taking the view of the jury to be right, that the defendants did not know that the paper was likely to contain a libel, and what’s more, that they ought not to have known it, having used reasonable care – the case is reduced to this, that the defendants were innocent disseminators of a thing which they were not bound to know was likely to contain a libel.

In this statement the issue becomes clear. Publication is one thing and innocent dissemination may be entirely another. But can publication take place without knowledge of the content OR of that fact that it has been made available? Given that defamation is a strict liability tort the answer would appear plain. But the new technology introduces a factual matrix which may differ from those conceived in the print paradigm , and which require examination. It is for this reason that Courtney J focussed upon Mr Murray’s statements about how the Facebook page worked.

In essence the Judge reasoned by analogy from earlier cases. After an extensive review and discussion of relevant authority, Courtney J considered that the notice board analogy is apt in considering publication via Facebook. She found that the host of a Facebook page establishes the digital equivalent of a notice board and has the power to control content by deleting postings and to block users.

She held that hosts of such pages will be regarded as publishers of postings made by anonymous users if,

1. They know of the defamatory statement and fail to remove it within a reasonable time in circumstances that give rise to an inference that they are taking responsibility for it (a request by the person affected is not necessary), and

2. Where they do not know of the defamatory posting but ought, in the circumstances, to know that postings are being made that are likely to be defamatory.

Thus the contention that Murray was the publisher of the defamatory statements was tenable.

Is this a different outcome to the well established distinction that arose between moderated and unmoderated bulletin boards in the classic cases of Stratton Oakmount Inc v Prodigy Services Co (1995 WL 323710 (NY Sup Ct 1995)) and Cubby Inc v Compuserve Inc (776 F Supp 135 (SD NY 1991))?  In Cubby the ISP Compuserve provided an online information service which allowed subscribers access to electronic bulletin boards, interactive online conferences and topical databases.

Management of these fora was contracted out to a third party which had the power to review, delete, edit and generally control content in accordance with editorial standards established by the defendant. The manager had, in turn, engaged an independent contractor to provide a daily newsletter.

Compuserve successfully resisted a defamation action based on statements made in the newsletter on the basis that it had no knowledge of the statements and was a distributor only, rather than a publisher. The Court accepted that the defendant had no greater editorial control over what was published in the newsletter than any public library or bookstore and was the “functional equivalent” of a traditional news vendor.

Courtney J, in considering Cubby, observed that the holding was inconsistent with Emmens v Pottle which held that a library or a bookstore could be a publisher, but could have recourse to the innocent dissemination defence. Another factor was that the reasoning on Cubby was based on the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the press as precluding strict liability for publication. Courtney J concluded:

This decision does not, therefore, assist in identifying a test that might fit into the existing parameters of UK and New Zealand common law.

Courtney J also discussed Stratton Oakmount. In that case the factual matrix differed from that of Cubby in an important respect in that the defendant Prodigy moderated and exercised a different extent of control over the content that appeared on its bulletin boards.

The facts were that Prodigy, the defendant, maintained a bulletin board service and had a company policy that the general content of the bulletin board would reflect family values. It developed content guidelines and removed material that it considered unacceptable. These controls were found to put Prodigy in a significantly different situation from the defendant in Cubby and resulted in Prodigy being a publisher. Interestingly, the issue of knowledge does not seem to have been a factor in the decision and the case seems to have proceeded on the basis that Prodigy did not have actual knowledge of the postings that were the subject of the action. It was the decision to assume a level of editorial control that was critical. The Court in Stratton Oakmount observed:

By actively utilising technology and manpower to delete notes from its computer bulletin boards on the basis of offensiveness and “bad taste”, for example, PRODIGY is clearly making decisions as to content … And such decisions constitute editorial control. If such control is not complete and is enforced both as early as the notes arrive and as late as the complaint is made, does not minimise or eviscerate the simple fact that PRODIGY has uniquely arrogated to itself the role in determining what is proper for its members to post and read on its bulletin boards. Based on the foregoing, this Court is compelled to conclude that for the purposes of Plaintiffs’ claims in this action, PRODIGY is a publisher rather than a distributor …
It is PRODIGY’s own policies, technology and staffing decisions which have altered the scenario and mandated the finding that it is a publisher. PRODIGY’s conscious choice, to gain the benefits of editorial control, has opened it up to a greater liability than CompuServe and other computer networks that make no such choice.

However, a consequence of this approach was that it would be safer for ISP’s or content providers to avoid any suggestion of editoral control. The Court in Stratton Oakmount rejected this as a serious risk on the basis that it “incorrectly presumes that the market will refuse to compensate a network for its increased control and the resulting increased exposure”. Nevertheless, the difficulties faced by website hosts controlling huge volumes of postings, led to legislation in the US (Section 230 Communications Decency Act 1996) which protects interactive computer services in relation to the publication of information by third parties.

Thus the Courts in the United States had adopted an “editorial control” test, akin to that exercised by newspaper proprietors. A different approach was suggested by Cynthia Counts and Amanda Martin in an article entitled “Libel in Cyberspace: A framework for addressing liability in jurisdiction issues in this new frontier” (1996) 50 Alb L. Review 1083. They referred to two pre-Internet cases from the United States – Heller v Bianco (111 Cap App 2d 424 (1952)) and Tacket v General Motors (836 F 2d 1042 (7th Cir 1987)) These have been referred to as “graffiti cases” arising from their facts.

In Heller the Court of Appeal of California held that the proprietors of a tavern were liable for the publication of a defamatory statement inscribed on the men’s bathroom wall after the bar-tender was told of it and failed to remove it. The knowledge that was regarded as sufficient was the knowledge of the barman, attributed to the proprietors. However, the issue of liability was determined upon the basis of a breach of a duty. This approach is not permitted in New Zealand (see Bell-Booth Group v AG [1989] 3 NZLR 148)

Tacket concerned a sign affixed outside a motor vehicle plant. The Judge cited from both Hellar and distinguished it on the basis of the “steep discount” that readers tend to apply to statements on restroom walls and the cost of frequent re-paintings. He went on to say:

A person is responsible f or statements he makes or adopts, so the question is whether a reader may infer adoption from the presence of the statement. That inference may be unreasonable for a bathroom wall or the interior of a subway car in New York City but appropriate for the interior walls of a manufacturing plant over which supervisory personnel exercise greater supervision and control. The costs of vigilance are small (most will be incurred anyway) and the benefits potentially large (because employees may attribute the statements to the employer more readily than patrons attribute graffiti to barkeeps).

Given the actual knowledge on the part of the defendants  it seems unlikely that liability based on assumption of responsibility could have been established without it.

The approach adopted by Counts and Martin in their Law Review article was that applying these cases by analogy, knowledge of defamatory postings on a website would be a pre-requisite for liability as a publisher. They said:

In Hellar and Tacket courts considered knowledge by the defendants and the defendants’ allowance of the statement to remain, to be critical. In Scott the Court added the requirement that for imposition of liability to be proper, the defendant must somehow invite the public to read the allegedly libellous statement.
Applying these principles to cyberspace publishing would result in potential liability if the sysop [systems operator] were aware of an allegedly libellous posting and undertook some action to ratify the communication. Conversely, these principles show that a sysop’s cyberspace activity would not result in potential liability if he does not know of the posting or did not take any action to ratify the communication.

In its 1999 report “Electronic Commerce Part 2”. The Law Commission recommended a test that required actual knowledge based on the so-called “graffiti principle” derived from a line of US cases and ejected as unfair and not feasible an alternative test based on the extent of editorial control. It was significantly influenced by the risks that flowed from the approach taken in Stratton Oakmont v Prodigy and considered that the “degree of editorial control approach” was undesirable because it would discourage screening for offensive material and such a test was not sufficiently precise to provide a predictable criteria on which ISPs could base their practices.

However, what has happened in England is that the law has developed to a position consistent with the approach in Emmens v Pottle, although that development has not been without controversy.

The line of cases referred to by Courtney J starts with the well-known case of Godfrey v Demon Internet [2001] QB 201 and Bunt v Tilley [2006] EWHC 407 (QB), both of which concern the liability of ISPs. What should be observed is that in fact Bunt v Tilley mitigates the somewhat rigorous position adopted by Morland J in Godfrey. Secondly, as Courtney J observed, the position of an ISP is quite different from that of a Facebook page host. However she considered the decisions are significant in the development of the law as it stands in relation to website hosts. It is encouraging to see the recognition by the Judge of the difference between the various types of activity on the Internet, rather than attempt to consider the matter as an overarching set of principles applicable to the Internet in general.

In Godfrey the defendant internet service provider offered a “Usenet” facility which allowed subscribers to access bulletin boards from the internet service provider’s news server. Demon was notified of a defamatory posting and asked to remove it. It could have done so immediately but did not. The posting remained on the news server for a further 10 days or so until it expired.

Moreland J rejected Demon’s argument that it was merely the owner of an electronic device through which postings were transmitted and not to be regarded as a publisher. He allowed the application to strike out the defence that the defendant was not a publisher. The claim only applied to that period of time after notice had been given and the Judge noted that the defendant had an editorial function:

I do not accept [the] argument that the defendant was merely the owner of an electronic device through which postings were transmitted. The defendants chose to store “soc.culture.thai” postings within its computers. Such postings could be accessed on that news group. The defendant couild obliterate and indeed did so about a fortnight after the receipt.

Then he went on to make a more generalised statement about the common law position regarding publication, suggesting that Demon would have been a publisher without knowledge of the defamatory statement:

At common law liability for the publication of defamatory material was strict. There was still publication if the publisher was ignorant of the defamatory material within the document. Once publication was established the publisher was guilty of publishing the libel unless he could establish, and the onus was upon him, that he was an innocent disseminator.

That general comment caused a considerable amount of concern within the internet community, although it should be observed that Godfrey was a case involving an interlocutory application to strike out a defence and did not address the substance of the claim (which was later settled). It dealt with a preliminary albeit necessary element of the tort of defamation.

The decision in Bunt v Tilley took a different approach, perhaps bringing into play a little progress and an understanding of the way in which information flows take place on the Internet. Bunt v Tilley was not concerned with material that was hosted by an ISP but with content of which the ISP was a carrier and in respect of which the ISP played a passive role. Eady J made the observation, referring to Emmens v Pottle :

….for a person to be held responsible there must be knowing involvement in the process of publication of the relevant words. It is not enough that a person merely plays a passive instrumental role in the process.

I would not, in the absence of any binding authority, attribute liability at common law to a telephone company or other passive medium of communication, such as an ISP. It is not analogous to someone in the position of a distributor, who might at common law need to prove the absence of negligence … There a defence is needed because the person is regarded as having “published”. By contrast, persons who truly fulfil no more than the role of a passive medium for communication cannot be characterised as publishers; thus they do not need a defence.

Eady J took this approach forward in two further cases that he decided. In Metropolitan International Schools Ltd v Designtechnica Corporation ([2009] EWHC 1765 (QB), [2011] 1 WLR 1743) he considered the cases of Google’s liability for the automatic function that was provided by its search engine of providing “snippets” from other websites in response to search enquiries by users. Eady J held Google’s function as a search engine, with no human input into the selection of snippets shown, meant that it could not be regarded as a publisher of them. The automatic process together with the lack of human or editorial control seemed determinative. But the judge went further. He considered that, even after notification of defamatory material, Google was still not a publisher because of its lack of control over future searches that might continue to throw up offending material.

This approach was continued in the case of Tamiz v Google [2012] EWHC 449(QB) although this case did not deal with search results but an entirely different utility offered by Google that it made available on the Internet. The service offered was called Blogger. It allowed any Internet user to create an independent blog. Courtney J observed that it was similar to the service offered by Facebook by which people could create and control their own Facebook page. As a starting point I agree with the Judge, but is is there that the similarity end, for much depends upon the way in which a user configures a blog or a Facebook page. Furthermore, there is a difference between a service provider and the host of a Facebook page. The reality of the matter is that the real host of the page is Facebook and the creator of the Facebook page uses Facebook’s hosting facilities.

In Tamiz, Eady J held that in its role as a platform provider Google was entirely passive. It had a policy of not removing offending material even when notified, but merely passing the complaint onto the blogger concerned. Although Eady J made no reference to the graffiti principle established in the US, he nevertheless likened Google’s position to that of the owner of a wall that had been graffitied in that, although the owner could have it painted over, its failure to do so did not necessarily make it a publisher.

Tamiz went on appeal to the English Court of Appeal and the developing principles in the  line of cases developed by Eady J  mitigating the strictness of defamation law for Internet hosts hit a “speed bump”.  The Court held that, although Eady J’s conclusion in Bunt v Tilley that an ISP was not a publisher was correct in the circumstances of that case, Google could not be regarded as a purely passive communicator of information in the case of Tamiz.

The Court of Appeal observed as follows:

[23] … I respectfully differ from Eady J’s view that the present case is so closely analogous to Bunt v Tilley as to call for the same conclusion. In my view the Judge was wrong to regard Google Inc’s role in respect of Blogger blogs as a purely passive one and to attach the significance he did to the absence of any positive steps by Google in relation to continued publication of the comments in issue.
[24] By the Blogger service Google Inc provides a platform for blogs, together with the design tools and, if required, a URL; it also provides a related service to enable the display of remunerative advertisements on a blog. It makes the Blogger service available on terms of its choice and it can readily remove or block access to any blog that does not comply with those terms … As a matter of corporate policy and no doubt also for reasons of practicality, it does not seek to exercise prior control over the content of blogs or comments posted on them but it defines the limits of permitted content and it has the power and capability to remove or block access to offending material to which its attention is drawn.

[25] By the provision of that service Google Inc plainly facilitates publication of the blogs (including the comments posted on them). Its involvement is not such, however, as to make it a primary publisher of the blogs. It does not create the blogs or have any prior knowledge or, or effective control over, their content. It is not in a position comparable to that of the author or editor of a defamatory article, nor is it in a position comparable to that of the corporate proprietor of a newspaper in which a defamatory article is printed …

[26] I am also very doubtful about the argument that Google Inc’s role as that of a secondary publisher, facilitating publication in a manner analogous to a distributor. In any event it seems to me that such an argument can get nowhere in relation to the period prior to notification of the complaint. There is a long established line of authority that a person involved only in dissemination is not to be treated as a publisher unless he knew or ought by the exercise of reasonable care to have known that the publication was likely to be defamatory: Emmens v Pottle (1885) 16 QBD 354, 357-358; Vizetelli v Muddie’s Select Library Ltd [1990] 2 QB 170, 177-180; Bottomley v S W Woolworth & Co Ltd (1932) 48 TLR 521. There are differences in the reasoning in support of that conclusion but the conclusion itself is clear enough. The principle operated in Bottomley to absolve Woolworth from liability for publication of a defamatory attack in a consignment of remaindered American magazines that it distributed; the company did not check every magazine for defamatory content, there was nothing in the nature of the individual magazine that should have led it to suppose that the magazine contained a libel and it had not been negligent in failing to carry out a periodical examination of specimen magazines. Since it cannot be said that Google Inc either knew or ought reasonably to have known of the defamatory comments prior to notification of the appellant’s complaint, that line of authority tells against viewing Google Inc as a secondaary publisher prior to such notification. Moreover, even if it wer to be so regarded, it would have an unassailable defence during that period under s 1 of the 1996 Act considered below

The Court then referred to the decision of Judge Parkes QC in Davison v Habeeb [2011] EWHC 3031 (QB) In that case Google was sued in respect of defamatory statements posted on a blog hosted by Google itself. The Judge distinguished Bunt v Tilley, although the distinction would be obvious because Google, in posting statements on a blog would fill the role of content provider, whereas Bunt v Tilley was concerned not with a content provider but and ISP – a content carrier, demonstrating the importance of distinguishing between the nature of the services provided and the protocols used on the Internet. That point was recognised by Judge Parkes QC

Blogger.com, by contrast, is not simply a facilitator, or at least not in the same way as the ISPs. It might be seen as analogous to a giant noticeboard which is in the fifth defendant’s control, in the sense that the fifth defendant provides the noticeboard for users to post their notices on, and it can take the notices down (like the club secretary in Byrne v Deane) if they are pointed out to it. However, pending notification it cannot have the slightest familiarity with the notices posted, because the noticeboard contains such a vast and constantly growing volume of material. On that analogy, it ought not to be viewed as a publisher until (at the earliest) it has been notified that it is carrying defamatory material so that, by not taking it down, it can fairly be taken to have consented to and participated in publication by the primary publisher. The alternative is to say that, like in Demon Internet in the Godfrey case, it chose to host material which turned out to be defamatory and which it was open to anyone to download so that at common law it was prima facie liable for publication of the material, subject to proof that it lacked the necessary mental state.

Perhaps the distinction demonstrates the fact that not all of the services offered by Google may comfortably fall under a generalised “Google” rule. However, Davison is helpful because it addresses the nature of blog publication, and the circumstances under which liability may attach.

In Tamiz, Google could not be considered a passive provider. Richards LJ picked up on Judge Parkes QC’s approach in Davison, observing as follows:

[33] … I have to say that I find the noticeboard analogy far more apposite and useful than the graffiti analogy. The provision of a platform for the blogs is equivalent to the provision of a noticeboard; and Google Inc goes further than this by providing tools to help a blogger design the layout of his part of the noticeboard and by providing a service that enables a blogger to display advertisements alongside the notices on his part of the noticeboard. Most importantly, it makes the noticeboard available to bloggers on terms of its own choice and it can readily remove or block access to any notice that does not comply with those terms.
[34] … Those features bring the case in my view within the scope of the reasoning in Byrne v Deane. Thus, if Google Inc allows defamatory material to remain on a Bloggerblog after it has been notified of the presence of that material, it might be inferred to have associated itself with, or to have made itself responsible for the continued presence of that material on the blog and thereby to have become a publisher of the material. Mr White QC submitted that the vast difference in scale between the Blogger set-up and the small club-room in Byrne v Deane makes such an inference unrealistic and that nobody would view a comment on a blog as something with which Google Inc had associated itself or for which it had made itself responsible by taking no action to remove it after notification of a complaint. Those are certainly matters fore argument but they are not decisive in Google Inc’s favour at this stage of proceedings where we are concerned only with whether the appellant has an arguable case against it as a publisher of the comment in issue.

Thus the creation of a blog on the Blogger platform is not a passive activity, according to Courtney J. As far as the provider of content is concerned that is clear. According to Courtney J, although Tamiz dealt with Google’s liability it is implicit that parties who actually create and control the content of the blogs are also to be regarded as publishers of comments posted on them once they know or ought to know of them. Courtney J also made reference to the Australian case of Trkulja v Google [2012] VSC 533 where it was held that the proposition that an ISP cannot be a publisher was rejected because it would cut across the principles that have formed the basis for liability in the news agent/library type cases, and the cases in which the failure by a person with the power to remove defamatory material gives rise to an inference of consent to the publication.

Trkulja dealt with aspects of the Google search engine. One aspect dealt with the provision of images as a search result and some unflattering images that suggested that Mr. Trkulja had associations with the Melbourne criminal fraternity. The other aspect dealt with search results that led to further information suggesting criminal associations on the part of Mr Trkulja. Now the reality behind Trkulja is that it deals with an aspect of the principal service offered by Google and that is its search engine. In providing this service Google is not an ISP. In fact, Google in fulfilling its role as a search engine a form of content provider, although direct human intervention with the results of a search is not present. Search results derive from the algorithms created and employed by the Google programmers. Beach J dealt with the publication aspect of a Google search as follows:

In my view, it was open to the jury to find the facts in this proceeding in such a way as to entitle the jury to conclude that Google Inc was a publisher even before it had any notice from anybody acting on behalf of the plaintiff. The jury were entitled to conclude that Google Inc intended to publish the material that its automated systems produced, because that was what they were designed to do upon a search request being typed into one of Google Inc’s search products. In that sense, Google Inc is like the newsagent that sells a newspaper containing a defamatory article. While there might be no specific intention to publish defamatory material, there is a relevant intention by the newsagent to publish the newspaper for the purposes of the law of defamation.

What then about knowledge? Does the “publication test” require actual knowledge of the defamatory statement? The cases discussed so far suggest otherwise and certainly such a proposition would be inconsistent with Emmens v Pottle. The “notice board” cases assisted Courtney J in her approach.

The starting point is the case of Byrne v Deane ([1937] 1 KB 818 (CA)). This case concerned an anonymous notice that was posted on the noticeboard of a gold club. The club rules prohibited notices being posted without the secretary’s consent. The defendants had seen the notice but did not remove it. The Court of Appeal held that those with control over the noticeboard were publishers of material posted on it if it could be inferred that they had taken responsibility for it. They had the power to remove the notice and failed to do so.

Greene LJ observed:

It is said that as a general proposition where the act of the person alleged to have published a libel has not been any positive act, but has merely been the refraining from doing some act, he cannot be guilty of publication. I am quite unable to accept any such general proposition. It may very well be that in some circumstances a person, by refraining from removing or obliterating the defamatory matter, is not committing any publication at all. In other circumstances he may be doing so. The test it appears to me to be this: having regard to all of the facts of the case is the proper inference that by not removing the defamatory matter the defendant really made himself responsible for its continued presence in the place where it has been put?

Byrne v Deane was followed by the Supreme Court of New South Wales in Urbanchich v Drummoyne Municipal Council & Anor. ((1991) Aust Torts Reports 69). This case concerned defamatory posters glued to bus shelters under the defendants’ control. The defendant had actual knowledge of the posters and had been requested to remove them. Courtney J considered that Urbanchich held that there should be proof of facts from which the fact-finder could infer that the defendant had taken responsibility for, or ratified, the continued publication of the statements. The defendant in Urbanchich did in fact have actual knowledge and was asked to remove the material but treating these facts as prerequisites for the defendant to be treated as a publisher does not accurately reflect the reasons for the decision.

Byrne and Urbancich were followed in New Zealand in Sadiq v Baycorp (New Zealand) Ltd. (HC Auckland CIV-2007-404-6421, 31 March 2008). The plaintiff complained of defamatory statements regarding his creditworthiness on a debt collector’s website. The material had been placed on the website by the previous owner of the website. Doogue AJ considered that the defendant in that case had to know of the material for the inference to be drawn that it had taken responsibility. He made the following comment about publication:

The key to whether Byrne can be extrapolated to this case, essentially depends on whether inferences can possibly be drawn that the first defendant possessed knowledge of the defamatory statement and the ability to bring about its cessation, leading to a final inference that failure to do so indicates that the first defendant in some way allies itself with the statement …
… it would not seem to be logically possible to conclude that a defendant was complicit in the publication, in the absence of knowledge that the publication had actually occurred. Where the facts are simple – the defendants could see with their own eyes that the offending notice has been attached to the wall as in Byrne – the inference may readily arise. The position, however, may be different in a case where, as here, the defendants’ actual knowledge that there had been a publication is moot.
Publication in this case would have occurred when subscribers to the website accessed Mr Sadiq’s file … It is not sufficient for the plaintiff to invoke a vague concept such as that the defendant took over the debt collection files of its predecessor, which predecessor had been responsible for actual publication. There would need to be evidence that some human agent of the defendant adverted to the presence of the statement on the website and nonetheless took no steps for its removal.

This seems to equate at least with an awareness of content existence athough not necessarily the content of the content (if I may put it that way) In resolving the authorities Courtney J said:

[L]imiting the circumstances in which a defendant is to be viewed as a publisher of other’s statements to those in which the defendant had actual knowledge is not consistent with Emmens v Pottle; under the general principle I respectfully think that the defendant in Sadiq ought to have been viewed, prima facie, as a publisher, with the real issue being whether it either knew or ought to have known that the publication contained a defamatory statement for the purposes of the innocent dissemination defence.

Courtney J’s Conclusion

Courtney J considered that the analogy of the notice board applied to considering whether the host of a Facebook page is a publisher. The host of such a page may establish what is essentially a noticeboard which may be public and to which anyone may post comments or which may be private and restricted to posting from a specified group. In either case the host may control content and delete postings and may also block users. Furthermore she held that those who host Facebook pages are not passive instruments (as was the case in Bunt v Tilley which ,as noted, dealt not with content providers but content carriers) or mere conduits of content on the page. She held that there are two circumstances where they will be publishers of content.

1.If they know of the defamatory statement and fail to remove it within a reasonable time in circumstances that give rise to an inference that they are taking responsibility for it. A request by the person affected is not necessary.

2.Where they do not know of the defamatory posting but ought, in the circumstances, to know that postings are being made that are likely to be defamatory.

So was it possible to argue that Mr Murray was a publisher of the anonymous comments. The Judge’s starting point was Mr Murray’s affidavit. He couldn’t control the posting of comments (other than blocking access to individuals) but he had considerable control over whether or not they remained. In his affidavit it was clear that he not only could, but did take frequent and active steps to remove postings that he considered defamatory or otherwise inappropriate. He also blocked particular individuals whose views he considered unacceptable. Mr Murray could not, on the available evidence, be viewed as a passive instrument. The auto-update facility used by Facebook presented Mr Murray with some problems but it did not prevent him from culling abuse or inappropriate postings – it only slowed down the process.

The Judge found two other significant aspects. The first was that Mr Murray blocked access to the page by Mr Wishart and his supporters which had the effect of making it difficult for Mr Wishart to identify defamatory content. The second was that Mr Wishart had warned Mr Murray bout defamatory positings. ALthough this fact was in dispute it appears that there was a level of dialogue ebtween Mr Murray and Mr Wishart. Depending upon the ultimate factual finding that issue might also be relevant to whether Mr Murray should have known that defamatory postings were being made.

Thus, within the context of the strike out application, Courtney J was satisfied that the pleading that Mr Murray was a publisher of the anonymous statements was tenable.

Comments

The decision of Courtney J is important for a number of reasons.

1. In approaching the application of existing law to the new information paradigm one of the important tools of analysis is whether or not an existing rule can be applied if not directly, then by analogy. If that approach fails or provides an inconclusive outcome, one must then go behind the rule and attempt to ascertain the policy reasons for the rule in attempting to locate the problem within existing policy and the set of rules that surround it. Courtney J’s decision is a clear example of the analogy approach. She adopts a conventional legal position, disposing of the various alternative arguments or dispensing with those that do not add up. Rather than deal with the matter on the basis of authority that derives from the digital paradigm itself, she reasons by analogy, using authorities decided in the pre-digital paradigm and applies the principle accordingly. Her approach cannot be criticised. It is a near-perfect example of the way in which the common law allows for development and adaptation.

2. The second matter of importance is the way in which Courtney J reviewed the various lines of cases on publication, and importantly, her analysis of the Internet cases. This case provides a useful coverage of the various cases that have been decided in this area and synthesises the threads of principle that have developed. Although the American line of Cubby and Stratton Oakmount do not apply in New Zealand for a number of reasons, the discussion undertaken by the Judge on these and on other cases points to the reasons why. By the same token, both those cases suggest some overarching approaches and helpful tests that can be considered. The function of moderating comment is present in Wishart and plays a role.

However, the authorities sometimes cover aspects of Internet defamation rather than presenting a “bright line” rule applicable to all. For example the cases of Godfrey and Bunt v Tilley apply to ISPs who host material on their servers. There are substantial differences between an ISP – a provider of Internet services – and the individual host of a Facebook page. In that respect the Google cases seem to represent a halfway house between ISP-type providers on the one hand and services built on the Internet backbone such as those provided by Google on the other. The Trkulja case considers Google as publisher by way of an information provider – providing search results by way of human created algorithms. Given the findings in that case, one wonders whether the case of Metropolitan International Schools Ltd v Designtechnica Corporation (the snippets case) would be decided in the same way in Australia. As matters stand at present its seems to me that outcomes will differ depending upon the position occupied by a potential defendant in the Internet framework.

3. The third point is that, like other cases in this area such as Godfrey and Gutnick this was an interlocutory or procedural matter. It had to do with whether or not, given certain extant facts, it was arguable that Murray was a publisher. The case did not decide the point as a factual matter. This a significant pouint because it means that although it is more likely than not that later cases will be decided in a similar way, the developments of the law in this area must be incremental and must depend upon individual factual circumstances. The variety of circumstances that present themselves in the new communications technologies that are present means that a variety of different fact situations will need to be considered. What this case decides is that in the circumstances before the Court Mr Murray was not only a publisher of his own material – and that does not seem to be at issue – but that he was responsible for the content that was published on the Facebook page that he hosted. It was not necessary for him to know the quality of the content that was posted in the same way that the bookseller or the newspaper seller does not need to know the quality of the content in the book or newspaper, but only that there is content present. Mr Murray did go a step further and vetted the third-party content and took some of it down. Thus the issue went beyond awareness of mere content and covered quality of content.

I now want to step  away from the legal analysis and looks at the nature of the Facebook page and its purposes and raison d’etre. What I argue is that by an analysis of the purpose of the technology, one arrives at the same result.

The Law Commission in its Issues Paper  “News Media meets New Media” in December 2011 made the following observation:

In essence, the web has placed the tools of publishing in the hands of every individual with access to it. And, just as critically, platforms such as Facebook, which now boasts over 700 million users worldwide, allow those individual voices to connect and aggregate, creating virtual global “communities of interest”. Thanks to the disruptive nature of the web, these cyber crowds are capable of wielding levels of power and influence hitherto reserved for the mass media and those with access to traditional sources of economic and political power.

The medium in which this great proliferation of publishing is taking place possesses a set of quite unique characteristics which together help explain the game-changing nature of this technology. These include the following:

  • publication on the internet is both instantaneous and global;
  • once published, digital content is virtually un-erasable;
  • users can publish and participate in online activities without revealing their real identities;
  • there is an almost infinite capacity to store data of every kind, from the millions of “tweets” broadcast each day, to the world’s largest libraries;
  • the development of powerful search engines and web browsers allows instant, and perpetual, retrieval of this data, the vast bulk of which can be accessed freely;
  • the decentralised architecture of the internet and the speed and frequency with which data is saved, copied, cross-referenced, routed and re-routed around the globe makes the system highly resistant to attempts to control how users behave or to interrupt or prevent the uploading and downloading of content from the vast network of servers and computers which comprise the web.

The properties of the new communications technologies enabled by the Internet and especially by the web are directed to just that – communication. In addition the Internet has enhanced communication between users by virtue of the quality of permissionless innovation which allows entrepreneurs to “bolt on” a utility or an application and “see how it flies”. The early internet community centres such as Usenet news groups gave way, with the introduction  of Web 2.0, to interactive websites and the rise of Social Media of which Facebook was one.

The very nature of social media is to enable people to communicate with one another, and although initially this was grounded in the continuation of “real-world” associations in cyberspace, the reality is that social media often allow for “cyber-relationships” to develop between people who have never met. More recently social networks have been seen as an opportunity for commercial entitles to market products and operate as another form of web presence for the purposes of brand identification, customer feedback and interaction.

Social media sites allow for a number of differing forms of communication between the host (the person who creates the site) and those who visit the site or wish to maintain an association with it (friends is the term on Facebook). The ability to post messages, make comments, post photos, mark and forward photos, for friends of friends to participate and many many more are all possible in the realm of social media.

But the most fundamental purpose of social media is the communication of information within a group. The size of the group may be very small or apocalyptically large. The purpose remains the same – the communication of information. And within the legal context that amounts to publication – making information available to a wider group. Within the context of defamation, the size of the group may be relevant for certain purposes, but this does not detract from the overall purpose of social media. In that respect, there is little difficulty in concluding that the host of a social media site or a Facebook page is a publisher of information that he or she posts there.

A host may allow others to comment or put up posts. The extent of the ability of others to post material depends upon the way in which the host has configured the site. For example, this blog is set up so that comments on posts are referred to me before I will allow them to be posted. This is a good thing because most of the comments that I receive are spam and marketing material that would clog this site and reduce its usefulness. And, of course, by allowing a comment to become public and available to readers, I am a publisher in the most absolute sense of the word. Not only do I allow the content to go onto the site, but I also exercise an editorial power, and evaluate the content of the comment.

This is part and parcel of the overall communicative purpose of a Facebook page or any other social media. Communication necessarily involved publication to the communicants, and, in the case of a Facebook page, that may be to anyone who accesses the page. If the host of the page chooses to allow comments to be posted and does not undertake editorial or moderating activity, what has happened is that he or she has provided a means by which people may comment, and in this respect Justice Courtney’s notice board analogy is apt. But even without the analogy the host, by providing the means by which others can post their views, takes on responsibility as publisher. This is not a case of a neutral carrier, as was the case of the ISP in Bunt v Tilley. The Facebook page is specifically created for a communicative purpose. The whole function to is communicate and to enable others to do so. Knowledge or awareness of the precise nature of the content is not necessary. In the case of Wishart, the Facebook page was put up for the specific purpose of protesting against the publication of Mr. Wishart’s books and to encourage people not to buy it. It was by no means a “passive” site. Its purpose was to communicate Mr. Murray’s point of view and that of others who wished to be associated with it.

Thus, if one looks at a Facebook page from a purposive perspective, one reaches the same point as did Courtney J when she used the tools of conventional legal analysis.

Note:

The issue of on-line defamation is not an easy one. The principles of defamation law – and especially libel law [including the use of seditious libel to silence or tio intimidate protest] – developed within the context of the print paradigm. For example, William Prynne faced proceedings for seditious libel arising from the publication of a book that he wrote entitled Historiomastix in 1632 and for which he was tried before Star Chamber in 1634. The history if libel has been largely associated with printed content and concepts such as publication and dissemination have developed within the properties or qualities of that particular information technology. As I have argued elsewhere, digital communications technologies have entirely different or enhanced properties or qualities. It is suggested that as the law continues to develop in this area, these properties or qualities will come into play.

In a future post I intend to revisit the area of defamation law and will deal with the issue of whether posting a link to an article containing defematory content is publication. Watch this space

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The News Media meets New Media – a midpoint in technology driven rule making

The Law Commission Report

In March the Law Commission released its long awaited report “News Media Meets ‘New Media’: Rights, Responsibilities and Regulation in the Digital Age.” The Reports addresses three major issues. The first is to develop and recommend a new regulatory framework for news media that recognises the multitude of disseminatory options available in the digital paradigm. The second is to consider what it refers to as harmful digital communications. In this section, which was the subject of a separate Ministerial Briefing Paper released in August 2012 the Law Commission considered the adequacy of existing sanctions and remedies for what may be called on-line speech harms. The third issue deals with entertainment content. The proposed “dismantling” of the separate regulatory structures for news dissemination leaves “entertainment content”, currently covered by the Broadcasting Standards Authority, out on something of a limb and although there are no set recommendations in this area, the Law Commission has suugested some possible lines of future enquiry

How this came about

The Law Commission commenced investigations into regulatory structures for the news media and other aspects of communicative technologies following a reference by the then Minister of Justice Simon Power who expressed his concerns in this way:

 “It’s a bit of a Wild West out there in cyberspace at the moment, because bloggers and online publishers are not subject to any form of regulation or professional or ethical standards.”

This followed the prosecution and conviction of Cameron Slater for breaching name suppression orders on his “blog” Whale Oil Beef Hooked.”

The terms of reference for the Law Commission were:

    •  How to define “news media” for the purposes of the law;
    • Whether and to what extent the jurisdiction of the Broadcasting Standards Authority and/ or the Press Council should be extended to cover currently unregulated news media and, if so, what legislative changes would be required to achieve this end; and
    • Whether the existing criminal and civil remedies for wrongs such as defamation, harassment, breach of confidence and privacy are effective in the new media environment and if not whether alternative remedies may be available.

In December 2011 The Law Commission presented an Issues Paper for comment. After a wide consultation process which concluded in March 2012 work commenced on the final report. This work was interrupted by concerns about bullying and cyberbullying.  The Minister of Justice, Judith Collins, asked the Law Commission to accelerate its report on this part of the terms of reference. A Cabinet Paper entitled “Harmful Digital Communications: The adequacy of the current sanctions and remedies” was released in August 2012. It appears as an appendix to the “New Media” Report.

The use of multiple technologies by News Media

The Law Commission focussed adopting a regulatory model that would address the way in which the News Media were adapting to and using new digital technologies. No longer were the points of difference between print, radio and television media present, although these media had different regulatory structures and standards. As the spread of the Internet became more pervasive so news media organisations adapted to it, presenting users with a rich mixture of content – text, audio-visual, multimedia – along with some of the other qualities that Internet technologies enabled by way of cross-linking and presentation that could not be achieved in the static disseminatory “one to many” model of the pre-digital environment. In its Issues Paper the Law Commission observed:

Where once newspapers and television were able to marshal their reporting resources around set broadcasting and printing schedules, now the internet enables – and requires – a constant supply of breaking and updated news. Newspaper publishers, with their long lead times between deadlines and distribution had, in the past, specialised in generating original news and analysis: now they must also compete head to head with broadcasters, including social media, in the live or spot news market.

In addition broadcast media was adapting from a strict time-based programming regime to a demand driven one, making content available for view at a time that it suited the viewer or the listener even although the availability of that content may be limited. In addition broadcast news utilised the internet to provide additional “in-depth” or “raw” material as an adjunct to a “formal” news broadcast. In its Issues Paper the Law Commission examined the way in which print, TV and radio were using the web as well as considering what it described as “Web only “News” Media. Examples were given of generalist news sitessuch as Scoop.co.nz, interent.co.nz and NewsRoom.co.nz. On-line aggregators such as those established by search engines such as Yahoo and Google feature as a new phenomenon in that they don’t produce any original content, relying instead on filtering, organising, repackaging and linking to content produced by others,including traditional media organisations.

Apart from what may be considered mainstream news media and various sites associated with it such as public relations and advocacy sites is the development of the Blogosphere and the rise of the citizen journalist, enabled by the democratising qualities of Web 2.0. Blogs vary greatly in terms of professionalism, readershipand influence. At one end of the spectrum are hobbyists who write diary-like entries primarily for the consumption of colleagues, friends or family. At the other, are the bloggers with specialist subject knowledge in areas such as business, politics, law, the media, science and the arts.

The Law Commission observes:

Bloggers typically draw on material from a wide variety of media, integrating the original content on which they are commenting into the body of their work by cutting and pasting excerpts from mainstream media websites (text and video) and linking to other websites or bloggers. It is also common for bloggers to post documents and or links to source material (including, for example, official reports or research) referred to in their blogs.

Although primarily a forum for opinion, bloggers also break news, sometimes strategically. For example, …..blogger Cameron Slater broke a number of news stories which were subsequently carried in the mainstream media.Bloggers, including Cameron Slater, also frequently critique mainstream media and in particular point out when they have been “scooped” by a blogger.

Finally the Law Commission observed that the development of social media as a news disseminating medium, and especially Facebook and Twitter are demonstrative of the way in which new media impacts upon established news media norms. It cannot be overlooked that many established mainstream media sites enable the posting of a news story reference to an individual’s twitter feed with the opportunity for a (brief) comment.

The intersection of the various technologies mean that it is difficult to tell which news media organisation is subject to what regulatory body. Television websites contain text making them similar to but nor subject to the jurisdiction of the Press Council – a voluntary body. Yet the text content is not subject to the jurisdiction of the Broadcasting Standards Authority. Similarly the NZ Herald may include video content from its web-site that would look like a form of broadcast, yet this form of content is not covered by the Press Council.

The problem that has presented itself, especially from the perception of a regulator, is the way that Internet technologies allow the various forms of news dissemination to converge or merge together.

The Theory of Convergence

Media Convergence is not new. In 2000 Time Warner and AOL merged together. It was trumpeted as the first great media convergence, where a content creation company got together with an Internet  service provider thus providing a further means of content delivery and the homogenising of the two concepts where content and delivery into a seamless organisation.

The concept of convergence, especially of media convergence, is still debatable.  For some it is the blending of multiple media forms into one platform for purposes of delivering a dynamic experience. For others it is the merging of mass communication outlets – print, television, radio, the Internet along with portable and interactive technologies through various digital media platforms. It allows mass media professionals to tell stories and present information and entertainment using a variety of media and therefore Converged communication provides multiple tools for storytelling, allowing consumers to select level of interactivity while self-directing content delivery.

Most theorists agree that in general terms convergence means ‘coming together of two or more things’. However a variety of different arguments have been put forward in an attempt to define what exactly is coming together. It may be the coming together of different equipment and tools for producing and distributing news. Alternatively, it could involve the flow of content across multiple media platforms, suggesting that media audiences nowadays play a crucial role in creating and distributing content, and convergence therefore has to be examined in terms of social, as well as technological changes within the society.

Some commentators consider that media convergence should be viewed as cooperation and collaboration between previously unconnected media forms and platforms.  Another view of convergence is the blending of the media, telecommunications and computer industries or, in other words, as the process of blurring the boundaries between different media platforms and uniting them into one digital form.

In some respects this last definition sums up the problem that the Law Commission had. Technology had disrupted the old certainties and had presented the world with a new media distribution model. Providing a regulatory model would have to fit with the technology. There was no way that the new media landscape was going to be reorganised. Whatever changes were going to be made would be driven by technological reality.

Proposals for a unified news media regulatory structure.

There are some fundamental propositions behind the Law Commission’s proposed regulatory scheme.

a) That membership of a regulator should be voluntary

b) That the regulatory body be fully independent of and separate from government and the political process

c) That incentives would encourage membership of the regulatory body

Policy Objectives

The policy objectives of the Law Commissions recommended reforms are to:

a)         To recognise an protect the special status of the news media and to ensure that all entities carrying out the legitimate functions of the 4th estate – irrespective of size or commercial status – are able to access the legal privileges and exemptions available to these publishers;

b)         To ensure that to those who are accorded news media special legal status are held accountable for exercising their powers ethically and responsibility;

c)         To provide citizens with an effective and meaningful means of redress when standards are breached; and

d)         To signal to the public which publishers they can rely upon as sources of news and information.

The Report – A Converged Standards Body

The Law Commission Report contains a total of 34 separate recommendations and are relatively detailed.  The first set of recommendations deal with a new converged standards body, folding the functions of the press council, the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the new formed Online Media Standards Authority (OMSA) into one standards body – the News Media Standards Authority or NMSA.  This would be established to enforce standards across all publishers of news including linear and non-linear broadcasters, web publishers and the print media.

The NMSA – Eligibility for Membership

Eligibility for membership of the NMSA is based upon the broad definition of a news media organisation.  The following criteria are proposed:

a)         Significant element of their publishing activity involves the generation and/or aggregation of news, information and opinion of current value;

b)         They disseminate this information to a public audience; and

c)         Publication is regular and not occasional.  However it excludes two entities from that definition namely online content infrastructure platforms and the office of the clerk of House of Representatives.

This definition ties in with the definition of news media which contains four elements:

a)         A significant proportion of their publishing activities must involve the generation and/or aggregation of news information and opinion of current value;

b)         They disseminate this information to a public audience;

c)         Publication must be regular;

d)         The publisher must be accountable to a code of ethics and a complaints process.

The Nature of Membership

The membership of NMSA should be voluntary and not compulsory.  This is an underlying theme throughout the entire report. In this respect the Law Commission proposal differs significantly from those of Lord Justice Leveson and which are currently under consideration in England and those of the Honourable R Finkelstein QC in Australia, the legislative enactment of which has run into considerable difficulty in the Australian Federal Parliament and has been abandoned for the time being.

Once the NMSA has determined that a person is eligible for membership, membership is based upon contract with the NMSA which includes a complaints process by which members will be bound and the powers of the NMSA with members being bound to comply with the exercise of such powers.  In addition an annual financial contribution is proposed together with the obligation upon members to publicise the NMSAs code of practice or statement of principles, their complaints process and their own complaints handling process.

The NMSA – Advantages of Membership

accountability to an external standards body and membership of it would bring advantages which would be of value to those willing to be subject to its jurisdiction.  Those advantages would include:

a)         Legal exemptions and privileges – only those publishers belonging to the standards body would be eligible for the legal privileges of exemptions currently available to the news media;

b)         Complaints resolution and mediation – the standards body would provide members with a quick and effective mechanism for dealing with complaints which might otherwise end up in costly court action – this could be of particular benefit in defamation and privacy cases;

c)         Public funding only publishers who belong to the standards body would be eligible for funding support from New Zealand on air for the production of news and current affairs and other factual programming – an advantage accruing to primarily radio and television media;

d)         Brand advantage in that membership of the standards body would provide a form of quality assurance and reputational advantage and it is anticipated by the Law Commission that this would become a bench mark to determine who is to access other non-legal media privileges such as access and entry to the parliamentary press gallery, admission to press conferences, access to embargoed releases and the like.

NMSA- Statutory Recognition

Although the NMSA would not be established by a statute it would therefore be indirectly recognised in statutory provisions creating the various news media privileges.  The Law Commission emphasises that the body would be independent of both state and the media industry in its adjudication and governance structures and there should be no Government or industry involvement in appointments to the new body.

The NMSA – Some Thoughts

The constitution and structure of the NMSA is interesting because it is not a statutory body and therefore not under any parliamentary supervision.  This is entirely consistent with the importance with maintaining the independence of the 4th estate together with freedom on the press and freedom of expression rights.

There must be genuine independence of both Government and the news media industry both in relation to the adjudication of complainants and in relation to its governance and management.   Membership, it is suggested, should include a chair person who should be a retired Judge or other respected experienced and well known public figure and appointment would be by the Chief Ombudsmen, thus maintaining a separation from the political process.

The makeup of complaints panel members should be representatives of the public who are not from the media industry but with a minority having industry experience represented of both proprietors and journalists but not including current serving editors.  The need for expertise in new media and digital communications technology is recognised by the fact that one panel member at least should have that quality.

I wonder if that is enough. The reality is that news media are now technology driven. The environment of the digital paradigm is completely different from that which went before to the point of being revolutionary. The technology drives behaviour and as the technology changes, so does behaviour arising from its use. Because we are dealing with communication technologies our use of and responses to the information communicated change, not only in terms of processing but in terms of expectations of information and of those who disseminate and deliver information. What a complaints body will be facing are not merely questions of news media standards against a background of traditional media expectations but an evolving and developing news media as continuing disruptive change – a characteristic of digital communication technologies – changes the media landscape. Although ostensibly the focus of a complaints system will be upon content, underlying the content layer will be ever-evolving communications technologies. The certainty that comes with stability will not longer be present and reliance upon presumptions based upon a static communications system may no longer pertain.

The Code of Practice

One of the important initial functions of the NMSA would be to formulate a code of practice as well as adjudicate complaints about breaches of the code as well as monitoring and reporting on trends and media practice and audience satisfaction and the mediation of disputes about matters which might not otherwise proceed to court.  Importantly the constitution of the NMSA should expressly recognise that the NMSA act in accordance with the guarantee of the freedom of expression in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

The Code of Practice (which is referred to as a code of ethics in s 198 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2011) would set out the standards against which the conduct of the news media is to be judged and which would form the basis of complaints from the public:

a)         The content of the code should be formulated by NMSA with no government influence on its content.  The Law Commission recommendation is that the code might be formulated by an NMSA committee.

 b)         There should be consultation with the industry and with the public in the course of the formulation of the code which should capture, to the fullest extent possible, the traditional tenants of good journalism (including accuracy, correction of error, separation of fact and opinion, fairness to participants, good taste and decency, compliance with the law, the protection of privacy in the interest of children, and principles about news gathering practices) in a way which meets the demands of modern New Zealand society.

 The code should also expressly recognise the guarantee of freedom of expression in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act as a guiding principle and strive to maintain a balance between this interest and other important interests such as privacy while making clear that the codes principles may be overridden by the public interest in publication.  There should also be guidance on what public interest actually means.  Sub codes would provide for differing public expectations of different publishing mediums and the code should be available on a website for the NMSA which should be reviewed on a regular basis.

Powers of the NMSA

The scope of the jurisdiction of the NMSA would be to enforce standards across all types of news publishers, irrespective of the format or distribution channel.  It would adjudicate complaints relating to news, current affairs, news commentary and contents such as documentaries and factual programming which purports to provide the public with a factual account of real events involving real people.  Membership would be voluntary but it is considered that the privileges and benefits that would attach to membership would counter balance any initial reluctance to become involved with the NMSA.

However the Law Commission recommends that the new body would have a wider range of powers than presently exist in the press council, the Broadcasting Standards Authority or the Advertising Standards Authority.  These powers would include:

a)         A requirement – as at present – to publish an adverse decision in the medium concerned, the regulator having power to direct the prominence and positioning of the publication;

b)         A requirement to take down specified material from the website;

c)         A requirement that incorrect material be corrected;

d)         A requirement that a right of reply be granted to a person;

e)         A requirement to publish an apology and

f)          A censure.  No monetary sanctions by way of fines or compensation are proposed.

NMSA Powers and Technological Reality

Perhaps the most striking new power is the requirement to take down specified material from the website.  This would not only apply to current mainstream media who may sign up to the NMSA but would also include citizen journalists and new media entities who have also joined and are subject to the NMSA.  There are two possible concerns to the concept of take down.  One is that it has a certain Orwellian ring to it in that the material exists on the internet or the website only for as long as it is available to internauts.  Once it is taken down it is as if it had never existed and perhaps this represents a certain ephemeral aspect of information on the internet and the well known difficulty of locating information where there has been the phenomenon of “link rot” or for whatever reason the website host no longer makes the material available.  In a situation involving an NMSA directive the website host would have no choice.

The second difficulty lies in the contradictory adage of information on the internet being “the document that does not die”.  Once information is available on the internet it has a tendency to replicate, become part of a Google cache or be available if not in whole than in part on a Google search.  In addition library archives and other forms of preservation of internet based material such as the internet archive mean that the information may still be available although not directly at the web address at which it was first published.  A dedicated researcher would probably be able to find information even although it had been the subject of take down directive from the NMSA.

A possible third scenario presents where, a disgruntled citizen journalist who has been directed to take down material from a website could leave a page at the web address containing information to the effect that the content that had previously been present at that address had been the subject of a takedown directive from the NMSA and could well contain complaints about censorship or some commentary on the wisdom or otherwise of the decision.  Although this could attract further attention from the NMSA it would be consistent with some behaviours present in citizen journalists blogs and websites.

Managing the Transition to the New Model

As part of the transition process it is proposed that an establishment working party should be set up, chaired by an eminent independent person nominated by the Chief Ombudsmen.  The balance of the working party should be appointed by the chair after consultation with the news media industry and representatives of that industry should be in a minority.  The working party should not exceed 7 members.  The proposal is that the working party should consult widely including with the BSA, the Press Council and OMSA and the working party effectively should attend to an initial implementation of the recommendations including:

a)         Drawing up a constitution of the NMSA both for management and adjudication functions;

b)         Laying down the manner of in criteria for the appointment of panel members of the NMSA and ensuring that the Chief Ombudsmen has an involvement in that process;

c)         Appointing the foundation panel members of the NMSA including foundation members of the complaints panel and appeals panel;

d)         Drawing up a mechanism for industry funding of the NMSA;

e)         Drawing up model forms of contract to be entered into between the NMSA and members of the news media electing to belong to it; and

f)          Advising if necessary on the initial funding contract with the Government to support the NMSAs oversight and monitoring functions.

How this is an example of technology driven rule making.

Introductory

The functional construction of the Internet involves six layers which offer regulatory activity of one form or another.

The Content Layer—the symbols and images that are communicated.

The Application Layer—the programs that use the Internet, e.g. the Web.

The Transport Layer—TCP, which breaks the data into packets.

The Internet Protocol Layer—IP, handles the flow of data over the network.

The Link Layer—the interface between users’ computers and the physical layer.

The Physical Layer—the copper wire, optical cable, wireless devices, routers, etc.

The first thing that should be noted is that what is proposed by the Law Commission is a form of regulation of the content layer of the news media. It is always this layer that attracts the most attention and is, and throughout history has been, the first target of regulation in whatever form it takes – whether it be to enhance the credibility of news media (as this would seem to be) or to engage in censorship.

In some respects the Law Commission embraces both but not in equal measure. Primarily the approach is to ensure that the 4th Estate acts in a responsible manner, and that the doors of 4th Estate advantages and privileges are open to “new media” – the citizen journalists whilst at the same time recognising that membership of the 4th Estate carries with it certain responsibilities – hence the NMSA. But on the other hand the censorship model is present in the suggestion that “take down” orders may be made in respect of on-line content.

In  addition to the content layer of the Internet there are a number of other deeper issues associated with technological change that have brought matters to a head. These may be described as the qualities or “properties” that enable or impact upon human behaviour – generally in ways that we don’t immediately perceive. I have referred to these qualities in other posts and repeat them here for completeness whilst  acknowledging that the development and identification of the qualities of new communications technologies is a work in progress. So far I have managed to identify nine qualities (and there are probably more) which dramatically distinguish digital technologies from those that have gone before and they are

    •  Persistence,
    • Continuing change or what you could refer to as the disruptive element,
    • Dynamic information
    • Dissociative enablement,
    • Permissionless innovation,
    • Availability,
    • Participation
    • Searchability
    • Retrievability.

The effect of this is that our consciousness of the changes that might have taken place in our behaviour or, in the case of information technologies, the way that we communicate, process and deal with information is delayed until the changes have become virtually irrevocable. These changes can impact at the individual level or, collectively, have an impact upon societal institutions. For example, the use of e-mail, Facebook or Skype as a means of communicating with family and friends has the following consequences that immediately spring to mind:

a) the decline of “hard copy” letter writing

b) the rise of informality in written communication

c) the questionable future of a “written documentary record” as a primary source for historians

d) the decline in physical mail items with impacts upon postal services profitability and viability resulting in reduced delivery days and increased cost driven inefficiencies in hard copy mail delivery “services”.

I acknowledge that this is just a brief sketch to illustrate a single issue, and should not be considered a developed argument.

A “Qualities-Based”  Approach to Rule-Making 

Thus the starting point of this discussion is based uopon the premise that new communications technologies contain certain properties which have an impact upon the way in which we react and assess the information that is communicated. Although information may of itself be static, the way in which it may be presented by a particular communications technology affects the way in which we deal with and react to it and may colour our expectations of information

New information technology paradigms subtly influence our perceptions of information, our intellectual approach to information and our use of information. The properties apparent in one paradigm may not be present in another.

A problem arises where we have become inured to the properties of one paradigm and consider that they apply mutatis mutandis to another without recognising that paradigmatic change introduces concepts that are so utterly different from a former paradigm that our responses, reactions to and assumptions about information are invalid.

This is particularly so when it comes to consider regulatory structures and policies which may be applicable to developments that occurred under one paradigm and that may not comfortably translate to a new one

It is suggested that it is necessary to examine the qualities of different information technologies to ascertain whether or not continuing assumptions about the nature of information and its communication are still valid, or whether they must be revisited in the light of the new technology which may have significantly different properties from the old.

It is my contention that when we examine the properties of information communication technologies, such as the printing press, alongside new digital technologies including computer-based and internet accessible information, it becomes necessary to re-evaluate our responses to and our assumptions of information that is available within the digital paradigm.

We should be careful to ensure that our policies are not based on assumptions deriving from the “old technology”. A different set of assumptions based upon information derived from the digital paradigm must be developed that recognise and reflect its properties. A tension necessarily arises between our print paradigm expectations and those that are apparent within the digital paradigm. Yet there remains a path where the core values that have developed within the print paradigm may still be reconciled with information derived from the digital paradigm.

Marshall McLuhan made (among many) two observations pertinent to this discussion. When he said “the medium is the message” – a somewhat obscure remark – he was emphasising that when we deal with communications technologies the content that is delivered is secondary and the way in which the message is delivered is important. He emphasised this rather crudely when he said that the “content” of a medium was a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.

This means that people tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content, but in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time.

As society’s values, norms and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions of which we may be unaware. This is reflected in the second comment that McLuhan made – We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. In this case the tools are new communications technologies and they have been and still are changing our behaviours and our expectations of what technology can do – especially in the communication of information.

What the technology has done is that it has dramatically changed many of our previously conceived ideas and understandings of information. Our responses illustrate this. The Minister’s remarks when he made his reference to the Commission provide an example. Putting to one side the emotive references to “the Wild West” which are anachronistic and inaccurate, the subtext of the Minister’s comments amount to the following:

a)      People are doing things with information and information systems that they were unable to do before (or could do, but with difficulty)

b)      Some of these actions challenge the rules and the framework of rules that have been set up to regulate information delivery systems

c)      There must be some way by which the actions which challenge the rules are brought within the existing rule structure or framework

Another way of interpreting proposition (c) is to ask how we can put the future within the constraints of the past. In many respects we find that the behaviour of individuals can be addressed within existing rules. The cases of R v Garrett and Police v Slater are examples.

This position becomes more complex when the focus shifts to what may be termed “institutions” such as the news media. The history of press, radio and television are continuing stories of State involvement with the media to one extent or another, be it at the level of content licensing following the statute of 1662 (print), state ownership and control of radio broadcasting as was the situation up until the early 1970’s or television channel licensing as is the case today. In addition there are the regulatory structures of the Press Council and the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

What must be remembered is that as these new technologies came on stream the State was very swift to attempt to assert some sort of control over their operation and output. In New Zealand it would be cynical to suggest that there is a political motive for this, although the curious situation where the Labour Party, which then favoured state control, supported the passage of the News Media Ownership Bill which would have released the stranglehold of newspaper ownership then present in New Zealand and which Labour perceived was right-wing, gives some support to the suggestion that within the political sub-conscious there is a media control agenda.

Of course, various levels and intensity of control are possible with monolithic, centralised  and capital hungry organisations. In the pre-digital paradigm the costs of setting up a newspaper, radio or TV channel were and still are very high, even without regulatory approval.

The digital paradigm challenges that model. It enables everyone to become a publisher. It is not unexpected that news media should rise to the challenge and we find ourselves in a situation where there is a convergence between broadcast and print media in print media websites, and the use by broadcast media of the various communications protocols enabled by the Internet to provide live streaming of content and content on-demand.

But we must remember that the regulatory structures that have been put in place were all pre-digital and with the monolithic model in mind. And furthermore we must remember that the digital revolution (so called) is in fact evolutionary in effect. It may well be that the on-line convergence models utilised by Mainstream Media (MSM) will not be around in 10 years time – and one need only look at the development of Social Media to understand the difference that internet may prompt in terms of behavioural norms and values. It may well be, for example, that MSM will fulfil a different news provision facility, focussing entirely upon factual information and stepping away from opinion and analysis, leaving that present function of MSM to citizen journalists – some of whom may be endorsed or who may write op-ed pieces on a free lance basis although it is acknowledged that this happens now. A possible future is the fragmentation of MSM into a defined and specialist role – again enabled by the new technologies and possible future protocols that may ride on the backbone of the Internet – although I imagine that it would require a culture shift for some journals to break free of a “tabloid” model and return to a more “intelligent” one.

The question that must be asked over and above the issue of the nature of content regulation – and it must be acknowledged that the Law Commission proposals operate at that level – is whether the model of content regulation is appropriate for the new technology. I consider this to be a valid issue. The model  of control of “acceptable” content be it heresy, treason or pornography has not changed significantly since the Constitutions of Oxford 1407 which were designed to address the Lollard heresy.  The model is labour intensive and has struggled to deal with increasing volumes of content made possible by technology. It was originally designed to censor manuscript materials. It struggled with the volume generated by print. Perhaps societal changes and attitudes about indecent content have liberalised to the extent that a very limited definition of “objectionable” reduces the volume, but, having said that every film needs to be viewed and classified and the censors struggle under the volume of content that is contained in video games.

There are associated issues with the question. If we wish to maintain a content control model or a model that responds to content issues do we wish to maintain a variation of the existing model or should we consider adopting a new one. The current proposals suggest the former and, with the greatest respect, this seems to be a rear-view mirror approach to an upcoming and continuing problem. Rather than make behaviours driven by a new technology an uncomfortable fit with a model from a different paradigm, might it not be preferable to address the new paradigm and design a model that recognises it. This, of course, assumes that there is a justification for regulation in the first place. In this respect one looks at existing law and remedies. It is acknowledged that current legal structures and processes make access to legal remedies and procedures difficult for the majority of the citizenry  – and are certainly not assisted by recent restrictions and cutbacks in legal aid. If the new paradigm continues or increases the occurrence of litigable behaviour then a new model needs to be developed to meet that. In this respect the suggestion of a new Tribunal answers such a need.

This then leaves the issue of the special treatment accorded to MSM and I wonder if the time has come, with the increased opportunities for “citizen journalism” to dispense with special treatment for MSM and make what have been privileges for MSM open to all. I immediately acknowledge that this may sound somewhat “Jeffersonian”, overly democratic or introducing an element of chaos into an otherwise reasonably ordered and moderately predictable environment.

On the other hand in a world where everyone may be a publisher, a possible future is that MSM, at least as we recognise it now, may wither and either pass into history like the scribes in the monasteries or transform into some other form of information dissemination model.

Whilst acknowledging that the suggestion of making MSM privileges open to all is radical it must be remembered that the new paradigm with the various protocols that underlie Twitter, Instant Messaging, SMS and the various other models that will appear (and further change WILL come) radically alter our attitudes, approach to and expectations of information.

Edward Kennedy adapted the words of the Serpent in Shaw’s Back to Methuselah as an epitaph for his brother Robert F Kennedy “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?” In today’s age of democratisation, continued questioning and challenging of established systems and within an environment of dramatic innovation, New Media adherents may well ask “Why not?” For MSM to have any credibility and respect they will need to have an answer. To say “it has always been this way” simply does not cut it in the digital paradigm because the opportunities that the paradigm offers means that it doesn’t have to be “this way”. 

The Technological Drivers

The enabling powers of the new information technologies have resulted in two major shifts. The first  is the democratisation of content production and the rise of the citizen journalist. New technologies remove the need for physical resources such as volumes of paper upon which to print the message. Disseminative qualities remove the need for a physical distribution network. Internet communicative technologies enable “citizen journalists” to publicise their work. Blog sites enable a form of simple publication with appropriate indexing systems. Search engines assist a readership to find the content sought. Thus, instead of the “one to many” static model of MSM the “citizen journalist” has available a “two-way flow” of content dissemination and notification.

The initial concern of Minister Power was to apply regulatory structures to bloggers. The Law Commission response was more measured, suggesting an opt-in model for “citizen journalists” giving them an opportunity to avail themselves of current advantages enjoyed by the news media. But there can be no doubt that the new technologies available have been the enablers of “citizen journalists” and the presence of “citizen journalists” and the content that they impart has raised the issue of the necessity for and scope of any regulatory structure to govern their activity.

The second enabling qualities of new information technologies has resulted in content convergence which has made the old regulatory structures inoperable or redundant. The Law Commission has proceeded from a starting point not of whether or not in the digital paradigm we need news media regulation. That appears to be a given although the raison d’etre has been repackaged as the incentivised model suggested. In a sense new technologies have changed nothing but have changed everything. One reality is that convergence has presented an opportunity to revisit the whole issue of news media regulation and accountability. The other is that its has been technology that has forced the reconsideration.

It will be interesting to see what happens next, for we have travelled only part of the road.

Note:

The Mosaic Approach to Theory Development or Exemplfication.

In his book “Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700” historian Lauro Martines  uses a collection of incidents and mini-tales to illustrate and develop a pattern of the nature of war in Europe during his period, and to develop the common themes that make up this study. He considered that the nature of the subject was so complex and the wars that raged throughout Europe were so diverse, employing new technologies as they became available, that the story could only be told by way of a mosaic rather then what could be considered a “linear” study.

In some respects a study of the way in which new communications technologies and protocols impacts upon law, and the use of law as a means of regulating new communications technology in a paradigm of continuous disruptive changes defies a linear approach and favours a mosaic one. Yet, by the same token, story-telling or developing evidence to support an hypothesis is not unknown in the law. Far from it – it is employed in every evidence based trial for, try as they might, it is almost impossible for lawyers to present a  strictly linear narrative in presenting evidence by way of witnesses unless they recall the witnesses from time to time to address a particular evidential issue. This was employed in the case of R v McDonald and is the exception rather than the rule. But in most cases it is for the lawyers to construct a coherent narrative from the evidence for the benefit of the jury or the fact finder and, in the context of the criminal jury trial, for the Judge to locate that narrative within the fabric of the law and thereby direct the jury accordingly.

I have suggested that a study of the impact of new communications upon the law and the development of legal rules favours this mosaic or “jigsaw” approach. One reason is that the field is one of constant flux where the evidential certainties often change. What an historical reality may justify one day may prove to be overtaken by subsequent events. Yet at the same time these pieces from a recent past may at least illustrate if not a theme at least a part of one, and when located within a wider framework may assist us in reaching some conclusions even although they may he in the nature of informed generalisations or partially supported hypotheses.

i have already written in this field and provided some examples of show technological change in the field of communications technologies impacts upon behaviour and values and challenges existing legal rules. At the same time changes and developments in ICT may drive legal change, although in some respects the changes that are made rather preserve a rule developed in an  earlier paradigm rather than recognise the qualities of the new one, and the behavioural changes that it has boroughs or will bring about. In time I hope to assemble enough pieces of  the mosaic or puzzle to develop a universal theory about the impact of communications technologies on the development of rules. I have no illusion that this will be a formidable task, but every journey starts with one step. I have already taken one or two. This piece represents another.