Ruling: ISP not responsible for e-mail defamation

The US Supreme Court on Monday let stand a lower court ruling that says Internet service providers (ISP) can't be held liable when a person is defamed in e-mail or online bulletin board messages.

Acting without comment, the court rejected an appeal filed by plaintiff Alexander G. Lunney after the New York Court of Appeals dismissed his suit against Prodigy Services late last year.

The suit stems from a 1994 incident in which an imposter sent several vulgar e-mail messages in Lunney's name to a Boy Scout leader in the town where he lived. Lunney's father sued Prodigy claiming that the boy, then 15, was "stigmatised by being falsely cast as the author of these messages," according to court records.

In its December ruling, the New York Court said Prodigy couldn't be held liable for the stigma created by the false messages because it can't be considered the publisher of the messages.

The court cited an earlier ruling, Anderson vs. New York Telephone, in which it was determined that the phone company couldn't be sued for libel because of "a scurrilous message that a third party recorded and made available to the public by inviting anyone interested to dial in and listen (to)."

Like the phone company, Prodigy has only a passive role as a carrier of information and isn't a publisher, the appeals court ruled. The ruling went on to say that even if it could be proved that Prodigy was a publisher in the legal sense, the Internet service provider "would be entitled to a qualified privilege subject to the common-law exception for malice or bad faith."

The appeals court also rejected an assertion by Lunney that Prodigy failed to properly investigate people when they signed up for e-mail accounts and thus allowed the imposter to create a false account using Lunney's name.

Prodigy argued that such a standard would be impossible because it would require "an ISP to perform investigations on millions of potential subscribers," court records say.

According to the court records, Lunney proved he didn't write the vulgar messages. But he still received a letter from Prodigy saying it was closing the account opened in his name due to the obscene content of the messages. When it was determined that Lunney hadn't actually opened the account, Prodigy apologised, the court records say.

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