Supreme Court on Hyperlinking

Ten months ago, the two Simons sat at the back of the Supreme Court of Canada and watched the argument in Crookes v. Newton, one of a number of Internet defamation cases coming from British Columbia. The decision was handed down this morning as 2011 SCC 47, (October 19, 2011). Among the intervenors were Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Samuelson-Glushko, Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, NetCoalition, British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, Canadian Newspaper Association, Ad IDEM/Canadian Media Lawyers Association, Magazines Canada, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Writers’ Union of Canada, Professional Writers Association of Canada, PEN Canada and Canadian Publishers’ Council.

Here is the headnote:

Newton owns and operates a website in British Columbia containing commentary about various issues, including free speech and the Internet. One of the articles he posted on it contained shallow and deep hyperlinks to other websites, which in turn contained information about C. C sued N on the basis that two of the hyperlinks he created connected to defamatory material, and that by using those hyperlinks, N was publishing the defamatory information. At trial, the judge concluded that the mere creation of a hyperlink in a website does not lead to a presumption that someone actually used the hyperlink to access the impugned words. The judge agreed that hyperlinks were analogous to footnotes since they only refer to another source without repeating it. Since there was no repetition, there was no publication. Furthermore, in the absence of evidence that anyone other than C used the links and read the words to which they linked, there could not be a finding of publication. A majority of the Court of Appeal upheld the decision, finding that while some words in an article may suggest that a particular hyperlink is an encouragement or invitation to view the impugned site, there was no such encouragement or invitation in this case. In addition, the number of “hits” on the article itself was an insufficient basis for drawing an inference in this case that a third party had read the defamatory words. The dissenting judge held that there was publication. The fact that N’s website had been viewed 1,788 times made it unlikely that no one had followed the hyperlinks and read the impugned article. Furthermore, the context of the article suggested that readers were encouraged or invited to click on the links.

The court held that the appeal should be dismissed, with three judgments, the majority by Justice Abella , with LeBel, Binnie, Charron, Rothstein and Cromwell JJ. concurring:

To prove the publication element of defamation, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant has, by any act, conveyed defamatory meaning to a single third party who has received it. Traditionally, the form the defendant’s act takes and the manner in which it assists in causing the defamatory content to reach the third party are irrelevant. Applying this traditional rule to hyperlinks, however, would have the effect of creating a presumption of liability for all hyperlinkers. This would seriously restrict the flow of information on the Internet and, as a result, freedom of expression.

Hyperlinks are, in essence, references, which are fundamentally different from other acts of “publication”. Hyperlinks and references both communicate that something exists, but do not, by themselves, communicate its content. They both require some act on the part of a third party before he or she gains access to the content. The fact that access to that content is far easier with hyperlinks than with footnotes does not change the reality that a hyperlink, by itself, is content neutral. Furthermore, inserting a hyperlink into a text gives the author no control over the content in the secondary article to which he or she has linked.

A hyperlink, by itself, should never be seen as “publication” of the content to which it refers. When a person follows a hyperlink to a secondary source that contains defamatory words, the actual creator or poster of the defamatory words in the secondary material is the person who is publishing the libel. Only when a hyperlinker presents content from the hyperlinked material in a way that actually repeats the defamatory content, should that content be considered to be “published” by the hyperlinker.

Here, nothing on N’s page is itself alleged to be defamatory. Since the use of a hyperlink cannot, by itself, amount to publication even if the hyperlink is followed and the defamatory content is accessed, N has not published the defamatory content and C’s action cannot succeed.

The Chief Justice (joined by Fish J.) agreed but said that a hyperlink should constitute publication if, read contextually, the text that includes the hyperlink constitutes adoption or endorsement of the specific content it links to. A mere general reference to a website is not enough to find publication.

The most extensive judgment (and arguably most radical approach) was taken by Deschamps J., who also found against Crooks.

Excluding hyperlinks from the scope of the publication rule is an inadequate solution to the novel issues raised by the Internet. This blanket exclusion exaggerates the difference between references and other acts of publication, and treats all references, from footnotes to hyperlinks, alike, thereby disregarding the fact that references vary greatly in how they make defamatory information available to third parties and, consequently, in the harm they can cause to people’s reputations.

In the common law of defamation, publication has two components: (1) an act that makes the defamatory information available to a third party in a comprehensible form, and (2) the receipt of the information by a third party in such a way that it is understood.

In the context of Internet hyperlinks, a simple reference, absent evidence that someone actually viewed and understood the defamatory information to which it directs third parties, is not publication of that content. In order to satisfy the requirements of the first component of publication, the plaintiff must establish, on a balance or probabilities, that the hyperlinker performed a deliberate act that made defamatory information readily available to a third party in a comprehensible form. An act is deliberate if the defendant played more than a passive instrumental role in making the information available. In determining whether hyperlinked information is readily available, a court should consider a number of factors, including whether the hyperlink is user-activated or automatic, whether it is a shallow or a deep link, and whether the linked information is available to the general public (as opposed to being restricted). Any matter that has a bearing on the ease with which the referenced information could be accessed will be relevant to the inquiry.

For an action in defamation to succeed, the plaintiff must also satisfy the requirements of the second component of publication on a balance of probabilities, namely that a third party received and understood the defamatory information. This requirement can be satisfied either by adducing direct evidence or by asking the court to draw an inference based on, notably, whether the link was user-activated or automatic; whether it was a deep or a shallow link; whether the page contained more than one hyperlink and, if so, where the impugned link was located in relation to others; the context in which the link was presented to users; the number of hits on the page containing the hyperlink; the number of hits on the page containing the linked information (both before and after the page containing the link was posted); whether access to the Web sites in question was general or restricted; whether changes were made to the linked information and, if so, how they correlate with the number of hits on the page containing that information; and evidence concerning the behaviour of Internet users. Once the plaintiff establishes prima facie liability for defamation, the defendant can invoke any available defences.

Here, N acted as more than a mere conduit in making the hyperlinked information available. His action was deliberate. However, having regard to the totality of the circumstances, it cannot be inferred that the first, shallow hyperlink made the defamatory content readily available. The various articles were not placed on N’s site’s home page and they had separate addresses. The fact that the reader had to take further action in order to find the defamatory material constituted a meaningful barrier to the receipt, by a third party, of the linked information. The second, deep hyperlink, however, did make the content readily available. All the reader had to do to gain access to the article was to click on the link, which does not constitute a barrier to the availability of the material. Thus, C has satisfied the requirements of the first component of publication on a balance of probabilities where this link is concerned. However, the nature of N’s article, the way the various links were presented and the number of hits on the article do not support an inference that the allegedly defamatory information was brought to the knowledge of some third person. The defamation action with respect to either of the impugned hyperlinks cannot succeed.

And if you’ve read this far, the court mentioned both Facebook and Twitter.

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  1. But they only mentioned the social media platforms in context of quoting a great paper by Bryan G. Baynham & Daniel Reid of Vancouver law firm Harper Grey LLP, The Modern-Day Soapbox: Defamation in the Age of the Internet.

    The full materials from their presentation at the B.C. CLE is available here (at a cost).

  2. I would argue that the least radical approach, and most thought out was Dechamps. She actually appeared to understand the real issue, rather than trying to draw an arbitrary line. Abella focusses far too much on what a hyperlink is, rather than how it is used in the context. She also relies far too heavily on whether the linker has control, rather than if the linker is aware of what they are linking to.