Libel settlement may pave way for

Nicole Vulcan

In a case that could set a precedent for international Internet law, British physicist Laurence Godfrey and the University settled their libel case in an English court.
As part of the Jan. 15 settlement, the University must apologize to Godfrey for allegedly libelous statements made against him on the Internet by former University student Kritchai Quanchairut.
A student from 1990 to 1995, Quanchairut allegedly defamed Godfrey on a Usenet newsgroup, an unregulated online forum similar to a chat room.
Godfrey contended that the University was responsible for libel because Quanchairut was using a University account at the time the comments were made.
Though the dispute with the University has been resolved, Godfrey’s lawsuit against Quanchairut for about $80,000 in damages remains. Quanchairut, who could not be located for comment, has not responded to the suit.
The University attempted, when the case was first brought forth in 1997, to challenge the jurisdiction of the case, since it was being heard by an English court.
Although the settlement came before the University’s jurisdiction arguments were heard, Godfrey contends that the court would have granted him the right to sue. “Publication takes place where it is read, not where it originated,” Godfrey said. “The damage to my reputation takes place here in England.”
Godfrey’s case could represent a precedent with regards to Internet libel. He has previously won settlements from Internet services in Australia/New Zealand and Great Britain.
In 1996, the English Parliament created the Defamation Act, which puts Internet service providers on notice for anything that is posted on their Web sites or newsgroups.
Conversely, the United States passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which protects Internet providers from being responsible for information posted on their sites.
And in a recent domestic case, Zeran vs. America Online Inc., now in appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, Internet providers were freed of responsibility from statements made by their users. But that was a case heard in U.S. court, where Internet regulation laws are much different than England’s.
From this, a pressing question arises — who holds jurisdiction over the global Internet?
In Godfrey’s opinion, “America has no trouble at all in trying to impose its jurisdiction on other countries.”
But Bill Donohue, University associate general counsel, said that if Godfrey would have won the case, “the law of England would become the law of Minneapolis (and) St. Paul. The point is that the University transmits nearly a million messages a day, and because of the values of the First Amendment, we can’t (regulate them).”