Scientist wrings apology from NZer over internet messages

British physicist Laurence Godfrey, who was responsible for a landmark UK legal case on defamation on the internet and the accountability of ISPs, has leapt into the fray again, once more targeting a New Zealander.

British physicist Laurence Godfrey, who was responsible for a landmark UK legal case on defamation on the internet and the accountability of ISPs, has leapt into the fray again, once more targeting a New Zealander.

Godfrey, a long-time litigant on internet matters, has previously threatened to sue a different New Zealand-based newsgroup poster. This time, though, Godfrey has sought to defend not only his own honour and reputation, but that of science.

He has successfully demanded a public apology in several internet newsgroups from Christchurch student Vitali Dev, over remarks made in the group sci.physics.

“During the past several weeks,” Dev says, in a message dated February 28, “I have made many postings to the newsgroup sci.physics under the pseudonym of ‘codeZ’, in which I have made numerous statements about physics that were completely erroneous ...

“When my errors were pointed out to me by various physicists in the newsgroup, including Dr Laurence Godfrey, instead of recognising and correcting my mistakes I continued to insist that I was right and responded with a stream of unjustified insults and false allegations of incompetence, ignorance, lack of comprehension and inability on the part of those correcting me.”

Habitual readers of newsgroups will see nothing unusual in this pattern of events. Robust argument and uncomplimentary personal remarks have long been part of the fabric of the medium.

However, in New Zealand Alan Brown’s conviction and fining for defamation of former Domainz chief Patrick O’Brien last year stands as an example that legal sanctions can be successfully brought to bear in the realm of internet debate.

Following Dev’s apology, another news contributor faked a message allegedly from Godfrey apologising for overreacting. Godfrey in response assured the combatant that a legal letter was on its way to the conveyor of the remark, this time the news and web-search portal vendor Google.

In 1997, Godfrey sued UK ISP Demon in the English courts over remarks made by a US-based contributor to a newsgroup, which Godfrey happened to read by way of Demon. The case became a test of the comparison of the roles of the ISP and a publisher of printed matter as to responsibility for defamatory statements by a contributor. Godfrey was the victor in the first court round, but Demon won an appeal.

Godfrey subsequently threatened to sue a different New Zealand-based newsgroup poster for defamation in New Zealand, and reached an out-of court settlement.

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