Unprepared internet service providers unwittingly run the risk of being charged with defamation, copyright infringement and illegal distribution of X-rated material, argues internet law guru Jim Cooper.
Cooper is a practising lawyer and legal professor at the University of Technology, Sydney.
He explained at an Internet World 2000 seminar today that Australian ISPs claiming any responsibility over content distributed via their server channels are more likely to be hit with serious legal damages than the actual perpetrators of internet crimes.
The relative ease of locating an ISP's physical presence and the ability of most ISPs to pay hefty legal fees and damages will attract lawyers to them, rather than the individuals who post law-breaking material on sites, Cooper said.
"The person you sue is the richest person in the room," he mused. "There's no point suing anybody if they haven't got any money."
Cooper hypothesised that a person who effectively robbed publishers, record companies and artists of billions of dollars by distributing copywritten material via the web would still be less likely than the ISP to be faced with damages.
Internet service providers can claim "innocent dissemination" as a legal defence, but ISPs are unable to publicly renounce all responsibility for content published via their servers due to the likelihood of consumer backlash, Cooper said.
He believes that service providers could be freed of liability if laws were passed that obliged all ISPs to include easily legible disclaimers on all sites.
"On the one hand, the internet depends on a healthy ISP industry to expand, to develop and to allow e-commerce to flourish. On the other hand, lawyers are going to say, 'We need someone in the jurisdiction to sue.'
"Consumers are going to say,'We want an internet which is safe for our children and we expect ISPs to provide this.'
"There are has to be some form of public balancing between the possible liability of ISPs and the need for an environment in which ISPs can flourish," Cooper said.
"The ISP industry shouldn't be too weighed down by the force of law."
Presently, ISPs in Australia risk fines of $17,500 a day for failing to take down sites deemed offensive, defamatory or illegal.