Internet Libel: No Single Publication Rule

March 13, 2009

In Times Newspapers Ltd (Nos. 1 and 2) v The United Kingdom (Applications 3002/03 and 23676/03), the European Court of Human Rights has given an important judgment affecting Internet liability for defamation. The full judgment can be viewed here.

The Times alleged that the rule under English law whereby each time material is downloaded from the Internet a new cause of action in libel proceedings accrued (the Internet publication rule) constituted an unjustifiable and disproportionate restriction on its right to freedom of expression. In proceedings in England (see Loutchansky v Times Newspapers Ltd [2001] EWCA Civ 92, [2001] EWCA Civ 536 and [2001] EWCA Civ 1805), culminating in the last-mentioned ruling of the Court of Appeal, it was determined that:

We do not accept that the rule in the Duke of Brunswick imposes a restriction on the readiness to maintain and provide access to archives that amounts to a disproportionate restriction on freedom of expression. We accept that the maintenance of archives, whether in hard copy or on the Internet, has a social utility, but consider that the maintenance of archives is a comparatively insignificant aspect of freedom of expression. Archive material is stale news and its publication cannot rank in importance with the dissemination of contemporary material. Nor do we believe that the law of defamation need inhibit the responsible maintenance of archives. Where it is known that archive material is or may be defamatory, the attachment of an appropriate notice warning against treating it as the truth will normally remove any sting from the material.

The parties subsequently settled the actions and The Times agreed to pay a sum of money in full and final settlement of claims and costs. However, The Times remained unhappy with the liability which continued to hover over their archived online material and pursued the case by way of an application to the Strasbourg Court.

The Court held as follows:


44.  The applicants maintain that they are exposed to litigation, without limit in time, on account of the adoption of the Internet publication rule instead of the single publication rule.
45.  The Court agrees at the outset with the applicant’s submissions as to the substantial contribution made by Internet archives to preserving and making available news and information. Such archives constitute an important source for education and historical research, particularly as they are readily accessible to the public and are generally free. The Court therefore considers that, while the primary function of the press in a democracy is to act as a “public watchdog”, it has a valuable secondary role in maintaining and making available to the public archives containing news which has previously been reported. However, the margin of appreciation afforded to States in striking the balance between the competing rights is likely to be greater where news archives of past events, rather than news reporting of current affairs, are concerned. In particular, the duty of the press to act in accordance with the principles of responsible journalism by ensuring the accuracy of historical, rather than perishable, information published is likely to be more stringent in the absence of any urgency in publishing the material.
46.  The Court further observes that the introduction of limitation periods for libel actions is intended to ensure that those who are defamed move quickly to protect their reputations in order that newspapers sued for libel are able to defend claims unhindered by the passage of time and the loss of notes and fading of memories that such passage of time inevitably entails. In determining the length of any limitation period, the protection of the right to freedom of expression enjoyed by the press should be balanced against the rights of individuals to protect their reputations and, where necessary, to have access to a court in order to do so. It is, in principle, for contracting States, in the exercise of their margin of appreciation, to set a limitation period which is appropriate and to provide for any cases in which an exception to the prescribed limitation period may be permitted (see Stubbings and Others v. the United Kingdom, 22 October 1996, §§ 54-55, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1996-IV).
47. On the facts of the present case, the Court considers it significant that, although libel proceedings in respect of the two articles were initiated in December 1999, the applicant did not add any qualification to the articles in its Internet archive until December 2000. The Court recalls the conclusion of the Court of Appeal that the attachment of a notice to archive copies of material which it is known may be defamatory would “normally remove any sting from the material”. To the extent that the applicant maintains that such an obligation is excessive, the Court observes that the Internet archive in question is managed by the applicant itself. It is also noteworthy that the Court of Appeal did not suggest that potentially defamatory articles should be removed from archives altogether. In the circumstances, the Court, like the Court of Appeal, does not consider that the requirement to publish an appropriate qualification to an article contained in an Internet archive, where it has been brought to the notice of a newspaper that a libel action has been initiated in respect of that same article published in the written press, constitutes a disproportionate interference with the right to freedom of expression. The Court further notes that the brief notice which was eventually attached to the archive would appear to undermine the applicant’s argument that any qualification would be difficult to formulate.
48.  Having regard to this conclusion, it is not necessary for the Court to consider in detail the broader chilling effect allegedly created by the application of the Internet publication rule in the present case. The Court nonetheless observes that the two libel actions brought against the applicant concerned the same two articles. The first action was brought some two to three months after the publication of the articles and well within the one-year limitation period. The second action was brought a year later, some 14 or 15 months after the initial publication of the articles. At the time the second action was filed, the legal proceedings in respect of the first action were still underway. There is no suggestion that the applicant was prejudiced in mounting its defence to the libel proceedings in respect of the Internet publication due to the passage of time. In these circumstances, the problems linked to ceaseless liability for libel do not arise. The Court would, however, emphasise that while an aggrieved applicant must be afforded a real opportunity to vindicate his right to reputation, libel proceedings brought against a newspaper after a significant lapse of time may well, in the absence of exceptional circumstances, give rise to a disproportionate interference with press freedom under Article 10.
49.  The foregoing considerations are sufficient to enable the Court to conclude that in the present case, the finding by the domestic courts in the second action that the applicant had libelled the claimant by the continued publication on the Internet of the two articles was a justified and proportionate restriction on the applicant’s right to freedom of expression.
50.  There has accordingly been no violation of Article 10 of the Convention.

An article examining the full implications of the case will follow.