The Supreme Court of Canada has just made a landmark decision that will have a huge effect on all of that work with the web and social media. To sum the decision up in the simplest terms, a hyper link cannot be libel. This means that you can publish any link on the web, without being concerned that someone will sue you because they don’t like the content. This is a huge victory for web freedom.
How did the Supreme Court come to this decision? The case began with a Vancouver business man, named Mr Crookes who filed suit against a Mr Newton, a newspaper publisher. Mr Newton’s paper published an article, with some links that portrayed Mr. Crooke’s business interests in a negative light. Mr. Crooke’s files a libel suit, attempting to have the newspaper remove the links from the story.
Throughout the history of the web, suits like this have been fairly common. Because of the distributed nature of the web, the outcome of these suits really runs the gamut. In some instances, sites have been forced to remove links, strike entire articles, issue apologies and pay monetary damages. In other cases, courts have upheld the right of newspapers to publish what they like in the interest of free speech. There is also the issue of what court has jurisdiction in many cases. If a site is created in one country, hosted in a second country, and the aggrieved party is in a third, who gets to make the final legal decision? That is one reason this particular case is so important. Since all the parties involved are Canadian, it was actually possible for a decision to be reached.
While freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are certainly at issue here, the justices actually based their judgment on another factor entirely: footnotes! The court views hyperlinks as footnotes, that is reference materials. It’s a huge positive that the court is clearly tech savvy enough to understand and support the idea that an open web cannot function without the use of hyperlinks, and by stifling the use of hyperlinks you threaten the very ability of the web itself to function.
The court explained:
“The Internet cannot, in short, provide access to information without hyperlinks. The potential ‘chill’ in how the Internet functions could be devastating, since primary article authors would unlikely want to risk liability for linking to another article over whose changeable content they have no control.”
This highlights the idea that no one is “forcing” you to click a link, so in essence the person including a link in their work, is not responsible for the content that they link to. Overall, this is excellent news for bloggers, online journalists and users of social media. The Supreme Court of Canada is guaranteeing your right to write, publish and link to materials without worrying that someone who disagrees with your content will easily be able to sue you. This is a huge event in the history of the web, and will likely set precedent in other courts and countries when similar issues pop up.
We encourage you to read the entire Decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, to really dig into the details of the case. It’s compelling material for anyone who works on the web or creates contents. In the meantime, we can all enjoy a big win for web freedom courtesy of the Canadian Supreme Court.