George Galloway's legal victory in Belfast last week is a welcome if limited check on the power of multinational internet businesses such as Google. The British politician won permission to proceed with his defamation action against the US internet giant. Google was found not to be beyond the reach of the law.
Galloway claims he was defamed on YouTube when called a "scumbag" and "tramp" and accused of supporting terrorist beheadings. Google owns YouTube. He is also suing Willie Frazer, who made the remarks in Belfast. Frazer's father was murdered by the IRA.
Galloway’s solicitor said, “This was a bitterly contested application but the ruling now allows him to proceed to the next stage in his action.” Google had tried to stop him serving legal papers at its US headquarters.
While print and broadcast media can be sued for any defamatory words, internet companies expect greater liberty. They want to be treated like phone companies, as mere carriers rather than publishers of words. They argue against being liable for what is on their sites, at least until any offending material is brought to their attention.
But people know how difficult it can be to get effective redress. They include a DCU student forced to become involved in a stressful and lengthy legal action against YouTube, Google, Facebook and other web companies in order to try and remove permanently an online video clip falsely accusing him of evading a taxi fare. He has faced a massive legal bill.
Last week, Galloway said that, “Defeat in this case would have been financially ruinous to me which is of course what the corporations count on in such cases. They have limitless resources not least because they pay almost no taxes.”
The judgment was delivered in the same week Google agreed to pay the UK tax authority £134 million in "back taxes", an amount critics decried as "derisory". But London's Tory mayor, Boris Johnson, said it was "absurd" to blame such a company for minimising taxes: "You might as well blame a shark for eating seals. It is the nature of the beast." Dealing with such beasts requires concerted international action, and legal systems that recognise the problems in taking them on. If multinational firms write blank cheques for lawyers, courts and governments must ensure such tactics do not deny people justice.
It can be hard to find out where owners of internet sites reside, and to make them answer to the law in the country where an injured party lives. And defamation is not the only legal problem. Treating that “I agree” tickbox on web services as though it were the equivalent of a carefully considered contract is quite unrealistic.
The freedom of gambling and sex companies to trade online as if the web were a traditional marketplace is also leaving vulnerable people open to corruption and damage. Yet the global nature of the web makes politicians in individual countries feel powerless.
The fields of data-gathering, “cookies” and surveillance are also vast. No one is sure what commercial or state body accesses or even owns masses of detail about them.
Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard and now a candidate for the US Republican party presidential nomination, recently boasted of a high level of co-operation between Silicon Valley and the US security services. There are manipulative commercial crossovers too that are hidden from those they affect.
Internet companies are powerful multinationals that profit from all they purvey. Yet they project an image of themselves not as sharks but as bright-eyed and brave freedom-lovers.
George Galloway, expelled from Labour, was a Respect party MP for Bradford West until last year. He was derided in 2006 for going on all fours to act like a cat on the TV show Celebrity Big Brother.
hero He is an unlikely
hero litigant. And having won a right to proceed, he may not win his action. Courts allow latitude to people critical of politicians. Galloway has spoken on the Middle East and other matters in ways that could come back to haunt him. The court may find Frazer’s comments fair or truthful.
But, whatever Galloway’s other sins, he has struck a blow for liberty. An intrinsic part of freedom of speech is the right to be heard if one thinks one’s character has been falsely impugned.