Some subscribers to Internet service provider Demon are being summarily banned from posting to online bulletin boards, ZDNet News has learned.
Demon's actions are the latest ripple from the defamation case between Demon Internet and Laurence Godfrey in which Godfrey successfully sued the ISP for allowing defamatory postings to remain on its servers. Demon, a subsidiary of Thus, has vowed to fight for a change in the law.
According to one of the ISP's subscribers, Demon is responding by blocking access to newsgroups in Usenet, a widespread online bulletin-board system. "Myself and a lot of others have had our Usenet posting rights rescinded due to fear of litigation on the part of Demon," he wrote.
According to what appears to be a letter from Thus' legal team, Thus suspended the subscriber's Usenet posting rights following an "allegation that you have posted an article containing a 'link' to material which may be defamatory". The article was apparently not even posted through Demon's Internet connection, but merely mentioned the user's Demon email address in the "reply-to" and "from" headings, which was enough of a connection to make Demon nervous.
"Failure to take such action would mean that both you and Thus plc could be liable for substantial damages," the letter says.
The subscriber is requested to return an acknowledgement that they received the notification and to "confirm that I will not link to such material in future using my Demon service". Upon receiving the reply, the user's access priveleges will be restored, according to the letter.
Demon would not confirm the action, saying it is reluctant to discuss any policy changes as a result of the Godfrey case. It claims to look at each case on an individual basis and is currently consulting its lawyers about how best to lobby for changes to the defamation laws in the UK.
Demon is not the only ISP acting with caution in the wake of the Godfrey case. Last week the Web site belonging to the Campaign Against the Censorship of the Internet in Britain (CACIB) was removed by its hosting ISP following a complaint from Laurence Godfrey about a "misleading headline".
A spat has also broken out between two online magazines, Outcast and the Pink Paper. Following threats of legal action from the Pink Paper, Outcast's Web site was removed by its ISP. Outcast intends to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights as to whether current UK libel laws breach the right to free speech on the Internet.
Solicitor with City law firm Charles Russell, Robin Bynoe believes such cases will be widespread. "It is entirely predictable that ISPs will be terribly cautious now," he says. "I think the law is inadequate and is asking ISPs to take responsibility for things we don't ask of telecoms companies or the Royal Mail."
Bynoe believes that until change comes, either through Act of Parliament or a European directive, ISPs will have to "grin and bear it". A change in attitude is also needed, he believes. "People have to get used to unpleasant things on the Internet. There is an incredible amount of defamatory material on the various news groups but most people don't sue. If they did, who knows where it would end."
Secretary general of ISPA (Internet Service Providers Association) Nicholas Lansman believes the fallout from the Demon case is having adverse affects on ISPs and, by extension, the whole e-commerce climate in the UK. "ISPs are being forced to act as judge and jury," he says. "There is a great deal of concern about the lack of clarity about whether ISPs are mere carriers or publishers."
Lansman has sympathy for ISPs which are closing down sites and blocking content but worries they may be challenged for inhibiting free speech or interfering with business practices. ISPA is currently working on guidelines to advice ISPs how best to act in such circumstances.
AOL is backing Demon's call for a change in the law. "There is a very urgent need for clarification of the law. It is absolutely vital," says an AOL spokesman. Commentators are hopeful the issue of ISP liability will be dealt with by either the European copyright directive or the e-commerce directive.