Internet triggers libel boom

LIBEL lawyers are poised for a boom in business as opportunities for defamation escalate with the trend towards high-tech communication along information “super highways”.

The potential has been demonstrated by a series of actions brought over offending material transmitted by computer or email.

Last week, Lester Aldridge of Bournemouth became the latest firm to act on an alleged high-tech libel when it launched a suit between two unidentified companies.

Last month, policeman David Eggleton won “substantial” damages from supermarket chain Asda in what is believed to be the first libel by email.

Last year, David Price, the London libel solicitor, acted for an academic who was allegedly defamed in a notice on the Usenet system.

Authorities believe the increasing use of the Internet – on which users can send and read uncensored messages – will have an unprecedented effect on the level of defamation.

David Jones, a partner specialising in technology law at Lester Aldridge, says: “It is a huge growth area for lawyers. It is possible for extremely damaging and untrue material to be spread at the press of a button.”

Another computer specialist, London barrister Nick Lockett, says: “As Joe Public comes on- line, the scope for libel will become enormous. “

Sarah Webb, the Russell Jones & Walker partner who handled the Asda case, says the number of actions will be limited because many offenders will not be wealthy enough to justify an action.

Experts warn that Internet writers will not usually be wary of limits imposed by libel laws and that the vast number and wide distribution of readers increases the potential impact of a libel.

Even cautious writers can be put off guard by the “internal” feel of communicating by computer and perpetrators can be difficult to trace.

Lockett, who has advised five “noticeboard” operators this year, said network controllers should be licensed, but should ultimately be given “common carrier” status – which absolves them from

responsibility for offending transmissions.