In an earlier post I discussed the decision of Courtney J in Wishart v Murray and dealt specifically with the issue of whether the “owner” of a Facebook page was the “publisher” of defamatory comments made on that page by third parties. The case was appealed to the Court of Appeal (Murray v Wishart  NZCA 461). The judges unanimously held that a third party publisher – that is the owner of the Facebook page that contains comments by others – was not liable as publisher of those comments. They rejected the suggestion liability should attach because the owner of the page “ought to have known” that there was defamatory material, even if he or she was unaware of the actual content of the comment. The Court adopted a more restrictive approach, holding that the host of a Facebook page would only be liable as a publisher if there was actual knowledge of the comments and that there was a failure to remove them in a reasonable time in circumstances which could give rise to an inference that responsibility was being taken for the comments.
However, the approach of the Court, and its apparent recognition of some of the problems posed by the new Digital Paradigm, is of particular interest. In addition the decision leaves open other aspects of publication on platforms other than Facebook such as blogs.
The Background to the Case
Mr Wishart was the author of a book called Breaking Silence, about a woman named Macsyna King. Ms King collaborated with him on the book. Ms King was the mother of Chris and Cru Kahui, who were twins. They died at the age of three months in 2006 from non-accidental injuries. Their father, Chris Kahui, was charged with their murder but acquitted. During his trial, he suggested that Ms King had inflicted the fatal injuries. A subsequent coroner’s report found that the twins had died while in Mr Kahui’s sole care. Nevertheless, suggestions implicating Ms King retained some currency in the public arena. The trial of Chris Kahui for the murder of the twins generated considerable public interest.
Mr Murray learned of the impending publication of Mr Wishart’s book in June 2011. He established a Facebook page called “Boycott the Macsyna King book.” He used his Twitter account to publicise the Facebook page. He posted comments on Twitter and on the Facebook page criticising both Mr Wishart and Ms King. Mrs Murray posted comments on the Facebook page, as did numerous other people.
Mr Wishart commenced proceedings for defamation. He alleged a number of instances but one cause of action related to a claim against Mr Murray in relation to third party statements made by persons posting comments on the Facebook page. This post will be restricted to the way in which the Court dealt with that cause of action.
In the High Court Mr. Murray applied to strike out this cause of action. He was unsuccessful for the extensive reasons and analysis given by Courtney J and discussed in an earlier post. Hence, he appealed.
The Approach of the Court
The Court started by considering the following test applied by Courtney J and articulated by her as follows:
Those who host Facebook pages or similar are not passive instruments or mere conduits of content posted on their Facebook page. They will [be] regarded as publishers of postings made by anonymous users in two circumstances. The first is 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. The second is 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. (Para 117)
This holding identified two tests – the “actual knowledge” test and the “ought to know” test. It was argued for Mr Murray that the actual knowledge test should be the only test for publication. As a first stet the Court considered how the Facebook page worked. This is an important and necessary first step in determining the proper application of existing rules. The Court said (at para 84)
An analysis of the positions taken by the parties requires a careful consideration of exactly what happened in relation to the Facebook page and on what basis it is pleaded that Mr Murray became the publisher of the statements made by third parties on the Facebook page. Although Courtney J described those posting messages on the Facebook page as “anonymous users”, that was not correct on the evidence. In fact, most of the users who posted allegedly defamatory statements identified themselves by name, are named in the statement of claim and could be traced by Mr Wishart if he wished to take action against them. So his action against Mr Murray is not the only potential avenue for redress available to him, though it was obviously more practical to sue Mr Murray for all the offending comments rather than sue many of those commenting for their respective comments.
The Court went on to discuss the way in which the page was set up and operated by Mr Murray. It noted that Courtney J had noted that Mr Murray not only could, but did, take frequent and active steps to remove postings that he considered defamatory or otherwise inappropriate, and also blocked particular individuals whose views he considered unacceptable. She found that he could not, therefore, be perceived as a “passive instrument”. Furthermore, Courtney J found that Mr Murray blocked Mr Wishart and his supporters from the Facebook page, which made it more difficult for Mr Wishart to identify and complain about potentially defamatory material. This impacted upon whether Mr Murray ought to have known of the defamatory postings.
The Use of Analogy
After considering the factual background to Courtney J’s finding, the Court went on to consider the legal path by which she reached her conclusion, her reliance upon the decision in Emmens v Pottle (1885) 16 QBD 354 (CA) and discussed at length the various decisions to which she referred. The Court then made the following significant comment (para 99):
The analysis of the cases requires the Court to apply reasoning by strained analogy, because the old cases do not, of course, deal with publication on the internet. There is a question of the extent to which these analogies are helpful. However, we will consider the existing case law, bearing in mind that the old cases are concerned with starkly different facts.
The Court then went on to consider the factual background to a number of cases that had been discussed by Courtney J. (paras 100 – 123) and the decision in Oriental Press Group Ltd v Fevaworks Solutions Ltd  HKCFA 47 which was decided after Courtney J’s decision. That case considered whether a host of an internet discussion forum is a publisher of defamatory statements posted by users of the forum. Although the main focus of the decision was on the availability of the innocent dissemination defence, the Court also considered whether the forum host was a publisher. It rejected the analogy with the notice board or graffiti cases, because in those cases the person posting or writing the defamatory comment was a trespasser. Since the forum host played an active role in encouraging and facilitating the postings on its forum, they were participants in the publication of postings by forum users and thus publishers.
The Court of Appeal then considered the various authorities that had been referred to by Courtney J and found that they provided limited guidance because the particular factual situation before the Court had to be the subject of focus. The reason for this was that the Court’s analysis of the authorities showed how sensitive the outcome may be to the particular circumstances of publication, and the fact that many of the authorities related to publication in one form or another on the internet did not provide any form of common theme, because of the different roles taken by the alleged publisher in each case.
The Court went on to examine the drawing of analogies , especially from authorities which did not involve the Internet. While noting that analogy is a helpful form of reasoning they may not be useful in particular cases. The Court observed that it was being asked to consider third party Facebook comments as analagous with:
- the posting of a notice on a notice board (or a wall on which notices can be affixed) without the knowledge of the owner of the notice board/wall;
- the writing of a defamatory statement on a wall of a building without the knowledge of the building owner;
- a defamatory comment made at a public meeting without the prior knowledge or subsequent endorsement or adoption by the organiser of the meeting
The Court then considered the circumstances in Emmens v Pottle which established that a party can be a publisher even if they did not know of the defamatory material. The holding in that case was that a news vendor who does not know of the defamatory statement in a paper he or she sells is a publisher, and must rely on the innocent dissemination defence to avoid liability.
The Court of Appeal considered that news vendor in Emmens v Pottle did not provide an apposite analogy with a Facebook page host. It observed that a news vendor is a publisher only because of the role taken in distributing the primary vehicle of publication, the newspaper itself. This contrasts with the host of a Facebook page which is providing the actual medium of publication, and whose role in the publication is completed before publication occurs. The Facebook page is in fact set up before any third party comments are posted.
So was the Facebook page more like the “notice on the wall” situation described in Byrne v Deane  1 KB 818 (CA)? This analogy was not perfect either. In Oriental Press Group the Court found that posting a notice on a wall on the facts in Byrne v Deane was a breach of club rules and therefore amounted to a trespass. The Court of Appeal did not consider that the breach of the club rules was a factor affecting the outcome but rather that the club and its owners had not posted the defamatory notice and, until they became aware of it, were in no position to prevent or bring to an end the publication of the defamatory message. If a case arose where the defamatory message was posted on a community notice board on which postings were welcomed from anyone, the same analysis would apply. Furthermore, in Byrne v Deane the post was truly anonymous. There was no way by which the person posting the notice could be identified. In the case of the Facebook host, posting messages in response to an invitation to do so is lawful; and solicited by the host. Similarly, the Facebook host is not the only potential defendant whereas in Byrne v Deane, as has been observed, the poster of the notice could not be identified.
The Court also considered that drawing an analogy between a Facebook page and graffiti on a wall was also unhelpful. The owner of the wall on which the graffiti is written is not intending that the wall be used for posting messages. A Facebook host is.
One argument that had been advanced was that an analogy could be drawn with a public meeting – although there is a danger in equating the physical world with the virtual. It was argued that if Mr Murray had convened a public meeting on the subject of Mr Wishart’s book, Mr Murray would have been liable for his own statements at the meeting but not for those of others who spoke at the meeting, unless he adopted others’ statements himself. The court felt the analogy was useful because it incorporated a factor that neither of the other two analogies do: the fact that Mr Murray solicited third party comments about Mr Wishart’s book. In addition speakers at a public meeting could be identified (and sued) if they made defamatory statements just as many contributors to the Facebook page could be. However, the public meeting analogy is not a perfect one in that statements at a meeting would be oral and therefore ephemeral unlike the written comments on the Facebook page but it did illustrate a situation where even if a person incites defamation, he or she will not necessarily be liable for defamatory statements made by others. That is the case even if he or she ought to have known that defamatory comments could be made by those present at the meeting.
Problems with the “Ought to Know” Test
The Court then expressed its concerns about the “ought to know” test and Facebook hosts. First, an “ought to know” test put the host in a worse position than the “actual knowledge” test. In the “actual knowledge” situation the host has an opportunity to remove the content within a reasonable time and will not be a publisher if this is done. In the “ought to know” case publication commences the moment the comment is posted.
What happens when a Facebook page host who ought to know of a defamatory comment on the page actually becomes aware of the comment? On the “actual knowledge” test, he or she can avoid being a publisher by removing the comment in a reasonable time. But removal of the comment in a reasonable time after becoming aware of it will not avail him or her if, before becoming aware of the comment, he or she ought to have known about it, because on the “ought to know” test he or she is a publisher as soon as the comment is posted.
Another concern was that the “ought to know” test makes a Facebook page host liable on a strict liability basis, solely on the existence of the defamatory comment. Once the comment is posted the host cannot do anything to avoid being treated as a publisher.
A further concern involved the need to balance the right of freedom of expression affirmed in s 14 of the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990 against the interests of a person whose reputation is damaged by another. The Court considered that the imposition of the “ought to know” test in relation to a Facebook page host gives undue preference to the latter over the former.
A fourth issue concerning the Court was that of the uncertainty of the test in its application. Given the widespread use of Facebook, it is desirable that the law defines the boundaries with clarity and in a manner that Facebook page hosts can regulate their activities to avoid unanticipated risk.
Finally the innocent dissemination test provided in s. 21 of the Defamation Act would be difficult to apply to a Facebook page host, because the language of the section and the defined terms used in it are all aimed at old media and appear to be inapplicable to internet publishers.
Thus the Court concluded that the actual knowledge test should be the only test to determine whether a Facebook page host is a publisher.
Thus the decision clarifies the position for Facebook page hosts and the test that should be applied in determining whether such an individual will be a publisher of third party comments. But there are deeper aspects to the case that are important in approaching cases involving new technologies and new communications technologies in particular.
The Deeper Aspects of the Case
The first is the recognition by the Court of the importance of understanding how the technology actually works. It is necessary to go below the “content layer” and look at the medium itself and how it operates within the various taxonomies of communication methods. In this regard, it is not possible to make generalisations about all communications protocols or applications that utilise the backbone that is the Internet.
Similarly it would be incorrect to refer to defamation by Facebook or using a blog or a Google snippet as “Internet defamation” because the only common factor that these application have is that they bolt on to and utilise the transport layer provided by the Internet. An example in the intellectual property field where an understanding of the technology behind Google adwords was critical to the case was Intercity Group (NZ) Limited v Nakedbus NZ Limited  NZHC 124.. Thus, when confronted with a potentially defamatory communication on a blog, the Court will have to consider the way in which a blog works and also consider the particular blogging platform, for there may well be differences between platforms and their operation.
The second major aspect of the case – and a very important one for lawyers – is the care that must be employed in drawing analogies particularly with earlier communications paradigms. The Court did not entirely discount the use of analogy when dealing with communication applications utilising the Internet. However it is clear that the use of analogies must be approached with considerable care. The Digital Paradigm introduces new and different means of communication that often have no parallel with the earlier paradigm other than that a form of content is communicated. What needs to be considered is how that content is communicated and the case demonstrates the danger of looking for parallels in earlier methods of communication. While a Facebook page may “look like” a noticeboard upon which “posts” are placed, or has a “wall” which may be susceptible to scrawling graffiti it is important not to be seduced by the language parallels of the earlier paradigm. A Facebook “page” or a “web page” are not pages at all. Neither have the physical properties of a “page”. It is in fact a mixture of coded electronic impulses rendered on a screen using a software and hardware interface. The word “page” is used because in the transition between paradigms we tend to use language that encodes our conceptual understanding of the way in which information is presented. A “website” is a convenient linguistic encoding for the complex way in which information is dispersed across a storage medium which may be accessible to a user. A website is not in fact a discrete physical space like a “building site”. It has no separate identifiable physical existence.
The use of comfortable encoding for paradigmatically different concepts; the resort often to a form of functional equivalence with an earlier paradigm means that we may be lured in considering other analogous equivalencies as we attempt to try to make rules which applied to an old paradigm fit into a new one.
The real deeper subtext to Murray v Wishart is that we must all be careful to avoid what appears to be the comfortable route and carefully examine and understand the reality of the technology before we start to determine the applicable rule.