Robert Verkaik: The law is catching up with those who use the internet to defame

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The Independent Online

The academic spat involving a celebrated historian, his barrister wife and her husband's rivals has exploded the myth that the internet is a lawless jungle.

Stephanie Palmer used the name "orlando-birkbeck" to write glowingly of work by her husband Orlando Figes while making disparaging comments about the books of other historians. When accounts of these self-serving reviews – first published on Amazon's online books pages – began to appear in the literary press, Mrs Figes must have realised that the game was up and so chose to "out" herself to The Independent.

The public embarrassment of being uncovered as the author of the poisoned pen postings is humiliating enough but the alternative could have been far worse.

Under Amazon's book reviews policy, any of the "wronged" historians could have contacted the online retailer to ask for the postings to be removed and the true identity of the author to be unmasked. If Amazon refused then they would have been entitled to go to court to make their case. Indeed, one of the named historians is understood to be considering a law suit to force Amazon to disclose all its computer records relating to the postings. Mrs Figes is by no means the first person to use the internet to cause upset by setting up a fake profile.

A businessman whose personal details were "laid bare" in bogus entries on the Facebook social networking website won a libel case last year in the High Court.

Mathew Firsht was awarded £22,000 in damages against an old school friend, Grant Raphael, who created the profile. The judge ruled that Mr Raphael's defence – that the entry was created by mischievous party gate-crashers at his flat – was "built on lies".

These cases show that while it is very easy to set up a false identity on the internet it may not be quite so easy to evade the consequences. The Defamation Act 1996 sets out how an internet service provider or other third party, such as Facebook and Amazon, can rely on the defence of "innocent dissemination" but the author of the offending posting is afforded no such protection. The founding fathers of the internet had intended to create a superhighway free from the suffocation of man-made law but the growth in online litigation proves they have failed. Lawyers know that what happens on the world wide web is not so very different to what happens in the real world.

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