Crookes v. Newton: Hyperlinking, Defamation Law, and Freedom of Expression on the Internet
October 24, 2011
Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada released its landmark decision in Crookes v. Newton, 2011 SCC 47, affirming 2009 BCCA 392 and 2008 BCSC 1424. At issue was whether creating an internet hyperlink to defamatory material constitutes “publication” of the material for the purposes of defamation law. The case challenged the Court to strike an appropriate balance between the competing interests of freedom of expression and the protection of reputation in the new context of internet communications.
To succeed in a defamation action, a plaintiff must first prove that defamatory words were published. The decision in Crookes stands for the proposition that a hyperlink, by itself, is not publication of the content to which it refers. Publication will only occur if the hyperlink is presented in a way that repeats the defamatory content. This article discusses the decision’s background, reasoning, and implications.
The appellant brought numerous defamation actions against various individuals and organizations alleging that he had been defamed in several articles on the internet. After those actions were commenced, the respondent posted an article on his website which commented on the implications of the plaintiff’s defamation suits for operators of internet forums. The respondent’s article included hyperlinks to websites containing some of the allegedly defamatory articles that were the subject of the plaintiff’s actions. However, the respondent’s article did not reproduce or comment on the content in those articles.
The appellant discovered the respondent’s article and advised him to remove the hyperlinks. When the respondent refused, the appellant brought an action seeking damages for defamation on the basis that the hyperlinks constituted publication of the allegedly defamatory articles. There was evidence that the respondent’s article had been viewed 1,788 times, but no evidence as to how many times, if any, the hyperlinks in the article had been followed.
Decision of the Supreme Court of Canada
The issue on appeal was whether creating a hyperlink to allegedly defamatory material constitutes publication of that material. The reasons of the six-justice majority, penned by Abella J., began by describing the evolution of the “publication rule.” Under this rule, any act which had the effect of communicating defamatory words to a third person constituted publication. The breadth of activity caught by the publication rule over the years has been vast. For example, a person whose role was to manually operate a printing press was, in one older case, found liable for defamatory words contained in the publication, despite being unaware of its contents.
The majority observed that the harshness of the publication rule was later alleviated by the development of the “innocent dissemination” defence, which protects defendants that play a role in the distribution of potentially defamatory material. Defendants, such as booksellers and libraries, may avoid liability if they had no actual knowledge of alleged libel, were not aware of circumstances that would give cause to suspect a libel, and were not negligent in failing to discover the libel.
The majority also recognized that, in recent years, the application of the publication rule has been tempered by cases which suggest that some acts of communication are so passive that they should not be considered publication. For example, the majority referred to English cases in which internet service providers and search engines were not held liable as publishers because they only played a passive instrumental role, and acted without knowledge, in the process of publishing the defamatory words. In other cases referred to by the majority, courts had held that merely making a reference to defamatory material was not publication.
In light of these developments, the majority concluded that creating a hyperlink to defamatory material is not the type of act that constitutes publication. In the majority’s view, modern realities made it necessary to interpret the publication rule to exclude references, such as hyperlinks, in order to accord with Charter values, recent jurisprudence, and the evolution of communications technology.
In declining to expose hyperlinks to the wide breadth of the traditional publication rule, the majority reasoned that hyperlinks are essentially content neutral references to material that hyperlinkers have not created and do not control. Although a hyperlink communicates that information exists and may facilitate the transfer of information, it does not, by itself, communicate information.
It is also significant that the majority’s reasons focused on the important role of the internet in promoting freedom of expression, and the importance of hyperlinks in facilitating access to information on the internet. As Abella J. writes,
 The Internet cannot, in short, provide access to information without hyperlinks. Limiting their usefulness by subjecting them to the traditional publication rule would have the effect of seriously restricting the flow of information and, as a result, freedom of expression. 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. Given the core significance of the role of hyperlinking to the Internet, we risk impairing its whole functioning. Strict application of the publication rule in these circumstances would be like trying to fit a square archaic peg into the hexagonal hole of modernity.
However, the majority also recognized that a hyperlink will constitute publication if it “presents content from the hyperlinked material in a way that actually repeats the defamatory content.” This might occur, for example, where a person inserts a hyperlink in text that repeats the defamatory content in the hyperlinked material. In these cases, the hyperlink would be more than a reference; it would be an expression of defamatory meaning. This had not occurred in the case at bar, so the majority dismissed the appeal.
McLachlin C.J.C. and Fish J. substantially agreed with the majority, but held 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.” In their view, a hyperlinker should be liable for linked defamatory content if the surrounding context communicates agreement with the linked content. In these cases, the hyperlink “ceases to be a mere reference and the content to which it refers becomes part of the published text itself.”
Deschamps J. agreed with the result, but disagreed with the approaches taken by the other justices. In her view, the blanket exclusion of all references from the scope of the publication rule erroneously treats all references alike. According to Deschamps J.’s reasons, the majority’s approach “disregards the fact that references vary greatly in how they make defamatory information available to readers and, consequently, in the harm they cause to reputations.” To address this concern, Deschamps J. proposed a nuanced and highly fact-driven framework under which a hyperlink would constitute publication if the plaintiff established two elements: that the defendant “performed a deliberate act that made defamatory material readily available to a third party in a comprehensible form,” and that “a third party received and understood the defamatory [material].”
To establish the first element under Deschamps J.’s approach, plaintiffs would need to demonstrate that the defendant played more than a passive instrumental role in making the information available, and make reference to numerous factors bearing on the ease with which the referenced information could be accessed. To establish the second element, plaintiffs would need to adduce direct evidence that a third party had received and understood the defamatory material, or convince the court to draw an inference to that effect based on the totality of the circumstances.
Crookes presented the Court with a welcome opportunity to consider the proper balance between the competing interests of freedom of expression and the protection of reputation in the context of internet communications. Five years ago, defamation law leaned significantly towards protecting reputation. Today, as a result of Crookes and other landmark cases – such as WIC Radio Ltd. v. Simpson, 2008 SCC 40, and Grant v. Torstar, 2009 SCC 61 – defamation law better protects and promotes the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
However, the decision in Crookes could have undesirable consequences in certain circumstances. As the Court recognized, the internet’s borderless and far-reaching mode of publication has tremendous power to harm reputation. As a result of Crookes, a victim of internet defamation who wishes to vindicate their reputation and prevent the spread of defamatory material only has a remedy against the person who created and controls the material – not persons who have referred their readers to it.
It is surprising that in the majority’s view this approach creates “little or no limitation to a plaintiff’s ability to vindicate his or her reputation.” Yet, in some cases, the majority’s approach may create opportunity for abuse that significantly limits a plaintiff’s ability to vindicate their reputation. The creation of a hyperlink is a means by which defamatory material can be rapidly disseminated. Defamatory material contained on an obscure website may, for example, receive the attention of a vast number of readers if a popular blogger hyperlinks to it. In these circumstances, the plaintiff would have no action against the hyperlinker, even if they created the hyperlink with the malicious intent of spreading the defamatory words.
Such a situation would be especially troubling if the victim were also unable to pursue a remedy against the creator of the defamatory material because they published the material anonymously – a common occurrence on the internet. In addition, if the defamatory material were posted on a third party’s website operated in the United States, and that website passively hosted the material, legislation would apply to immunize the operator of the website from liability: see Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230 (1996); see also Crookes at para. 28. If the operator of the website refused to remove the defamatory material, it would remain visible for the world to see. The victim would be left without any remedy and, meanwhile, the use of hyperlinks could cause the defamatory material to rise from obscurity to notoriety.
Although this concern might be alleviated by adopting the more contextual and nuanced approaches suggested by McLachlin C.J. and Fish J., and Deschamps J., those approaches lack the welcome certainty of the majority’s bright-line rule. McLachlin C.J. and Fish J.’s test for publication is dependent on the presence of indicia of “adoption or endorsement,” the scope of which is inherently uncertain. Deschamps J.’s approach is similarly fact-driven. If either test applied, it would be difficult to predict in advance whether a hyperlink constituted publication. Uncertain exposure to liability might then deter the public from using hyperlinks, which could inhibit the internet as a medium for free expression. This very concern likely drove the majority to establish its bright-line rule.
The non-majority approaches would also have the undesirable effect of shifting the weight of litigation to defendants. Once a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of defamation, the onus shifts to the defendant to raise any available defences. Both of the non-majority approaches would lower the threshold to be met by plaintiffs in order to establish a prima facie case. As a result, more internet users would be thrown into the costly position of having to justify their conduct by reaching for the protection of a defence. Although the wide availability of defences for hyperlinkers may, as Deschamps J. suggests, “dissuade overeager litigants from having a chilling effect on hyperlinking,” it would not deter plaintiffs who wish to stifle criticism by intimidating defendants through costly litigation.
Lastly, it is important to recognize that the decision in Crookes may not be the final word on defamation liability for hyperlinks. The Court expressly left open the question of whether the same principles apply to embedded or automatic hyperlinks, which automatically display referenced material with little or no prompting from the reader. These hyperlinks are distinguishable from the user-activated hyperlinks in Crookes, which require users to click on the hyperlink in order to access content. Although the Court declined to comment on the legal implications of automatic or embedded hyperlinks, it appears that they would constitute publication, according to the majority’s reasoning, to the extent that they make third party content appear as part of the website that the hyperlinker controls.
This article was originally posted at The Court (Osgoode Hall Law School), and is reproduced here with permission. This article was also referred to on the Heenan Blaikie LLP Entertainment and Media Law Signal.