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Opinion: Demon was wrong

Far from being the UK's Internet champion, Demon was negligent and its arrogance caused its downfall, says Richard Barry
Written by Richard Barry, Contributor

There was no surprise that Demon -- now Thus plc -- would lose its case against the particle physicist Laurence Godfrey. That was pretty much a certainty when Justice Moreland threw out the ISP's defence last summer.

Demon, which once served the UK's burgeoning Internet market with vigour and innovation, seemed to have thrown in the towel. The company started by Cliff Stanford way back in the days when email was just a virtual toy for geeks lost its bottle and its integrity, not long after declaring itself to be the UK's Internet champion.

So what happened?

In a nutshell, a bunch of over-zealous flamers got carried away in a news group and defamed Godfrey, using servers hosted by Demon. Key to Godfrey's prosecution was that he told Demon about the postings and requested they be removed. He wrote letters pointing out that under any law, be it pre- or post- Internet, they were defamatory and should be taken down.

Demon did not remove the postings and later told ZDNet that an administrative error may have caused them to stay on the servers. Jane Wakefield's coverage of the case for ZDNet was, we are told by Godfrey, used to illustrate Demon's apparent negligence.

And so it should have.

There are two arguments here: one is that ISPs should not have to take responsibility for what is being posted on their sites. It is quite impossible to imagine any organisation sifting through the often inane content of a newsgroup every day to weed out something that might end up in court.

That's a ridiculous thing for anyone familiar with the workings of the Internet to suggest, and it seemed to be what Demon was saying. No wonder it lost.

The other argument is quite simple: if an ISP or content provider on the Internet is made aware of a potentially libellous posting, it should act on it. That means pull it down, check it out, have the lawyers take a look.

Isn't that just plain ol' common sense?

It seems bizarre that Demon knew about these postings and did nothing about them.

So how will this affect the industry? That's still not clear. According to Robin Bynoe, a partner with City law firm Charles Russell, the law "simply can't keep up" with the Net and has "failed". Much as we all agree the law is an ass when it comes to the Net, I think Demon just got caught out playing a game it thought it could win by upping costs, effectively forcing Godfrey out of court and, if the ISP had won, onto poor street.

Once effortlessly insightful, Demon has become a corporate juggernaut that is unwilling -- or unable because of its shareholders -- to talk to the press or even its customers. It has become detached and arrogant. It is not the Demon it once was.

The Internet will always be a haven for flamers and downright morons who seek notoriety by slagging off everyone else. If they are using a particular site to do that, the site in question should make an effort to deal with it.

Godfrey was awarded £15,000 in damages. The court may decide to award another £250,000 in costs at a later date.

In failing to do what it should have done when it was told about the postings, Demon got what.As Godfrey says: "If they had pulled down the postings after I had told them about this, there would have been an end to it."

Nothing has been proved here and no precedent has been set. There is still the question of what happens if an ISP doesn't remove libellous material because it doesn't know it is on its servers. Now that's a different matter all together.

Come and read the news comment about 'Dr Godfrey's big adventure' with Ken Young from AnchorDesk UK.

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