The Court of Appeal judgment has given judgment in respect of the claim by Mr Tamiz that he was defamed on a blog hosted by Google and that Google was liable for damages. In supporting the ruling of Eady J and rejecting Tamiz’s appeal, the Court of Appeal nevertheless opens a window for claims that Google might well have liability in some cases.
In Payam Tamiz v Google Inc  EWCA Civ 68, the Court of Appeal has given judgment on a libel claim arising from allegedly defamatory comments on a blog. The important issue in the case was the extent of the liability of Google for defamation; it was responsible for Blogger, the platform on which the blog in question was hosted.
Tamiz essentially complained that the blog hosted on Blogger bearing the name 'London Muslim' contained eight specific comments, posted between 28 and 30 April 2011, that were defamatory of him. There was a dispute as to when he first notified of this but it was agreed that his letter of claim was received by Google in early July 2011, that on 11 August 2011, after further e-mail exchanges, the letter was forwarded to the blogger and that on 14 August 2011 the blogger voluntarily removed all the comments about which complaint is made. Tamiz sought damages in respect of the publication of the allegedly defamatory comments during the period prior to their removal.
In proceedings prior to the Court of Appeal hearing, Tamiz was granted permission to serve the claim form on Google Inc in California. On Google Inc's subsequent application, however, Eady J held that the court should decline jurisdiction and that the order for service out of the jurisdiction should therefore be set aside. That ruling by Eady J, whose judgment at  EWHC 449 (QB) can be accessed here, was the subject of the appeal.
Giving the lead judgment, Richards LJ summarised the ruling by Eady J:
'Eady J found that three of the comments were arguably defamatory but that on common law principles Google Inc was not a publisher of the words complained of, whether before it was notified of the complaint or after such notification. If, contrary to that view, Google Inc was to be regarded as a publisher at common law, section 1 of the Defamation Act 1996 ("the 1996 Act") would provide it with a defence, in particular because it took reasonable care in passing the complaint on to the blogger after it had been notified of it. At this point of his judgment Eady J also indicated his acceptance of a submission that the period between notification and removal of the offending blog was so short as to give rise to potential liability on the part of Google Inc only for a very limited period, such that the court should regard its potential liability as so trivial as not to justify the maintenance of the proceedings, in accordance with the principles in Jameel (Yousef) v Dow Jones & Co Inc  QB 946. Nevertheless he went on to consider an alternative defence under regulation 19 of the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 ("the 2002 Regulations"), which he held would provide Google Inc with a defence if it were otherwise needed.'
It is worth noting that Tamiz was not represented before Eady J and the arguments landing Google with liability as a publisher had not previously been made in detail. Richards LJ considered that Eady J was wrong to regard Google's role in respect of Blogger blogs as a purely passive one and to attach the significance he did to the absence of any positive steps by Google Inc in relation to continued publication of the comments in issue. He stated (at -)
As a matter of corporate policy and no doubt also for reasons of practicality, it does not seek to exercise prior control over the content of blogs or comments posted on them, but it defines the limits of permitted content and it has the power and capability to remove or block access to offending material to which its attention is drawn.
Richards LJ also expressed his doubts about the claim that Google might be a secondary publisher in the period prior to notification of the complaint and 'even if it were to be so regarded, it would have an unassailable defence during that period under section 1 of the 1996 Act'.
However, after notification of the complaint, the position changed in the view of Richards LJ. He referred to Byrne v Deane  1 KB 818, where an allegedly defamatory verse posted on the wall of a golf club and was allowed to remain there for some days. That case suggested the following test 'having regard to all the facts of the case is the proper inference that by not removing the defamatory matter the defendant really made himself responsible for its continued presence in the place where it had been put?' It was referred to in Godfrey v Demon Internet Ltd  QB 201 and Davison v Habeeb and Others  EWHC 3031 (QB).
That finding turned attention the defence available to Google in s 1 of the Defamation Act 1996. Richard LJ accepted Eady's 'generous' view that Google's response to the complaint from Tamiz was reasonable. However, he went on to look closely at s 1(1)(c):
Having opened a window for the claimant on this, arguably the most interesting legal issue, the Court of Appeal then very firmly shut the door. It found that Eady J was certainly right in his view that, in any event, any liability of Google for the interim period between notification of the complaint and the removal of the comments was so trivial as not to justify the maintenance of the proceedings. But Google may well feel very nervous about its procedures in such cases and will not be entirely happy with this 'win'.
Ruth Baker, 12:10:36 18/02/2013