In actions for libel and slander, “publication” refers to the communication of defamatory material to a third person. Does hyperlinking to a website containing defamatory material amount to publication of that material in the eyes of the law?
This was the issue that was recently considered by the B.C. Court of Appeal in the case of Crookes v. Newton, the first case at the appellate level in Canada to consider whether the creation of a hyperlink to a site that contains defamatory material can make the creator liable for the defamatory material. The plaintiff, Mr. Crookes, claimed that he was defamed in various articles that first appeared on the Internet in 2005. The defendant, Mr. Newton, put up a post on his website under the heading “Free Speech in Canada”, and inserted hyperlinks to webpages that contained the defamatory articles. Significantly, Mr. Newton did not reproduce any of the content from the articles, nor did he comment on them in any way. The relevant post excerpt (hyperlinks omitted) is as follows:
Under new developments, thanks to the lawsuit, I’ve just met Michael Pilling, who runs OpenPolitics.ca. Based in Toronto, he, too, is being sued for defamation. This time by politician Wayne Crookes. We’ve decided to pool some of our resources to focus more attention on the appalling state of Canada’s ancient and decrepit defamation laws and tomorrow, p2pnet will run a post from Mike [Pilling] on his troubles. He and I will also be releasing a joint press statement in the very near future.
When Mr. Crookes learned of the post, he asked Mr. Newton to remove the hyperlinks, but Mr. Newton refused. Mr. Crookes then sued Mr. Newton, taking the position that by creating the hyperlinks, Mr. Newton became a publisher of the impugned articles found at the hyperlinked websites. Mr. Newton brought a motion for summary judgment, arguing that that Mr. Crookes could not prove that the hyperlinks were brought to the attention of a third party and therefore “published”. Mr. Crookes was able to prove that Mr. Newton’s site had been accessed 1,788 times, but he could not prove whether any visitors to the site had ever clicked on the hyperlinks leading to the webpages containing the defamatory articles.
Mr. Crookes argued that there should be an automatic presumption of publication of the hyperlinked articles – such a presumption exists with respect to defamatory content in newspapers or broadcasts to the general public through the operation of ss. 2 and 12(2) of British Columbia’s Libel and Slander Act which provides:
s. 2. Defamatory words in a broadcast are deemed to be published and to constitute libel.
s. 12(2). The publication of a printed copy of a newspaper is proof, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, of the publication of the printed copy.
The Court refused to apply such a presumption, holding that since there is no such statutory provision in Canada providing for the presumed publication of communication distributed through the internet, it should be up to the Legislature, rather than the courts, to create such a presumption. Nor would the majority of the Court infer publication from the fact that Mr. Newton’s site had received 1,788 “hits”. Justice Saunders, speaking for the majority, noted that there was no evidence adduced with respect the volume of “hits” here compared to the norm, the usual behavior of internet readers or “surfers” or the jurisdiction in which they resided. As a result, there was insufficient information on which to infer that the hyperlinks had been accessed at all, let alone by Canadian viewers.
The court concluded that the mere fact that Mr. Newton hyperlinked the impugned sites did not make him a publisher of the material found at the hyperlinked sites. The Court referred to the 2005 case of Carter v. B.C. Federation of Foster Parents Assn., where it had held that a reference to a website in a printed newsletter, where there was no element of control by the defendant over that website, did not amount to publication of the defamatory material found at that site. In that case, a group of defendants had prepared a written newsletter which contained an internet address for an internet chat room which posted defamatory material, with the comment that “more news” could be found at that address. The Trial judge found that the reference in the written newsletter did not in the circumstances amount to publication by the Federation of the defamatory materials found at that site.
In this case, Mr. Newton advised that he saw the hyperlinks “as the equivalent of a footnote or biographical reference”, and the majority of the Court of Appeal agreed. The majority of the court found that there was no substantial difference between referring to a web address in a written article and a mere hyperlink; both required a decision on the part of the reader to access another website, and both required the reader to take a distinct action. Further, in this day of rapidly changing technology, the court was not persuaded that it would take any less effort to access a hyperlink than a web address in an article. Thus, according to the majority, if it is apparent from the context in which the hyperlink is used that it is being used merely as a biographical or similarly limited reference to an original source, without in any way actively encouraging or recommending to the readers that they access that source, then this would not amount to publication. However, the footnote analogy is not a complete answer to the question. If a hyperlink served as an invitation or encouragement to view an impugned site, or in some way adopted a portion of its contents, the hyperlink could be defamatory. For example, a statement that “The truth about [Person X] is found here, where “here” is hyperlinked to defamatory content may be sufficient to constitute defamation. Thus, the issue of whether a hyperlink promulgates defamatory content will require a contextual, fact-specific analysis.
(Of course, therein lies the rub. The majority of the Court did not see encouragement in Mr. Newton’s post, likening the links to a footnote for a reader or card index in a library. The dissenting judge was of the view that the context of the post served as an inducement to readers to click on the hyperlink).