Defamation issues

For information on defamation generally, see Defamation and your rights.

The same laws apply online

In Dow Jones & Co Inc v Gutnick [2002] HCA 56, the High Court confirmed that the same laws govern defamation on the internet as govern defamation in other types of publications, and that “publication” (one of the elements of defamation) occurs where the material is downloaded, read and comprehended by the reader. This case has been confirmed in subsequent decisions.

Unintentional meanings

The nature of the internet allows users flexibility in the ways in which they access and publish information. It is easy to add to a website’s comments pages or chat rooms, or to publish content in blogs or on Twitter. Unintentional imputations (the meaning conveyed by the material) may arise from words or images on a website that are linked to words or images on a different site, or a different part of the same site. Words or images might be independently innocent, but when linked may give rise to a defamatory meaning. In certain cases, the publisher of one site may be responsible for the replication of defamatory material appearing on a linked site. Similarly, the risk of defamation can increase when an article is summarised and published as a tweet or post to a social media website. This is because when a shortened version is published, the context (and thereby the defences to the defamatory content) can be lost.

Case example

Hockey v Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd [2015] FCA 652

The former Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey sued Fairfax Media Publications alleging defamation, in relation to articles that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times newspapers. Each of those newspapers also published online versions of the articles on various online platforms with similar content to the substantive part of the printed articles.

From an internet law perspective, the interesting part of this case was that, aside from the printed and online versions of the articles, Mr Hockey also sued for defamation for some “tweets” published by The Age as separate publications. One tweet comprised only the words “Treasurer Hockey for Sale” and was followed by a hyperlink to the story on The Age website. A second tweet contained a “summary” comprising the following words: “Treasurer for Sale: Joe Hockey offers privileged access. Treasurer Joe Hockey is granting privileged access to a select group of business leaders in return for political donations totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.” The text appeared alongside a photo of Mr Hockey and a hyperlink to the story on The Age website. The third tweet was the same but also included the article, rather than a summary.

The Federal Court found that the articles were not defamatory because when read as a whole, any defamatory imputation that may have arisen by the headline was dispelled. However, the tweets (and a poster or placard used to advertise the newspapers) were found to convey defamatory imputations. Namely that he corruptly solicited payments to influence his decisions as Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia; and he is corrupt in that he was prepared to accept payments to influence his decisions as Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia. However, the court found that the third tweet, which contained the entire article, was not defamatory because any understanding that the Treasurer was engaging in corrupt conduct would have been dispelled.

The case establishes the risk in publishing via Twitter a short comment that does not have the advantage of providing the necessary context to “cure” potentially defamatory remarks.

Liability of internet content hosts and internet service providers

Uniform defamation Acts that came into effect in January 2006 include a defence of “innocent dissemination” for subordinate distributors. This means that defamation actions can be defended, provided the internet content host and internet service provider:

was not the first or primary distributor;

was not the author or originator of the matter; and

did not have any capacity to exercise editorial control over the content before it was published.

For more information about the uniform defamation Acts, seeWhat is defamation?” in Defamation and your rights.