Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Supreme Court of Canada Holds That Publication of Hyperlink To Defamatory Material Is Not Itself Defamatory

The Supreme Court of Canada has held that publication of a hyperlink to defamatory material that appears on another website is not actionable as defamation. The case is Crookes v. Newton. From the opinion:

 In the common law of defamation, publication has two components: (1) an act that makes the defamatory information available to a third party in a comprehensible form, and (2) the receipt of the information by a third party in such a way that it is understood.

           In the context of Internet hyperlinks, a simple reference, absent evidence that someone actually viewed and understood the defamatory information to which it directs third parties, is not publication of that content.  In order to satisfy the requirements of the first component of publication, the plaintiff must establish, on a balance or probabilities, that the hyperlinker performed a deliberate act that made defamatory information readily available to a third party in a comprehensible form.  An act is deliberate if the defendant played more than a passive instrumental role in making the information available.  In determining whether hyperlinked information is readily available, a court should consider a number of factors, including whether the hyperlink is user-activated or automatic, whether it is a shallow or a deep link, and whether the linked information is available to the general public (as opposed to being restricted).  Any matter that has a bearing on the ease with which the referenced information could be accessed will be relevant to the inquiry.

                    For an action in defamation to succeed, the plaintiff must also satisfy the requirements of the second component of publication on a balance of probabilities, namely that a third party received and understood the defamatory information.  This requirement can be satisfied either by adducing direct evidence or by asking the court to draw an inference based on, notably, whether the link was user-activated or automatic; whether it was a deep or a shallow link; whether the page contained more than one hyperlink and, if so, where the impugned link was located in relation to others; the context in which the link was presented to users; the number of hits on the page containing the hyperlink; the number of hits on the page containing the linked information (both before and after the page containing the link was posted); whether access to the Web sites in question was general or restricted; whether changes were made to the linked information and, if so, how they correlate with the number of hits on the page containing that information; and evidence concerning the behaviour of Internet users.  Once the plaintiff establishes prima facie liability for defamation, the defendant can invoke any available defences.

                    Here, N acted as more than a mere conduit in making the hyperlinked information available.  His action was deliberate.  However, having regard to the totality of the circumstances, it cannot be inferred that the first, shallow hyperlink made the defamatory content readily available.  The various articles were not placed on N’s site’s home page and they had separate addresses.  The fact that the reader had to take further action in order to find the defamatory material constituted a meaningful barrier to the receipt, by a third party, of the linked information.  The second, deep hyperlink, however, did make the content readily available.  All the reader had to do to gain access to the article was to click on the link, which does not constitute a barrier to the availability of the material.  Thus, C has satisfied the requirements of the first component of publication on a balance of probabilities where this link is concerned.  However, the nature of N’s article, the way the various links were presented and the number of hits on the article do not support an inference that the allegedly defamatory information was brought to the knowledge of some third person.  The defamation action with respect to either of the impugned hyperlinks cannot succeed.


[16]                          To prove the publication element of defamation, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant has, by any act, conveyed defamatory meaning to a single third party who has received it (McNichol v. Grandy, [1931] S.C.R. 696, at p. 699).  Traditionally, the form the defendant’s act takes and the manner in which it assists in causing the defamatory content to reach the third party are irrelevant:

     There are no limitations on the manner in which defamatory matter may be published.  Any act which has the effect of transferring the defamatory information to a third person constitutes a publication.  [Footnotes omitted.]


(Stanley v. Shaw, 231 B.C.A.C. 186, 2006 BCCA 467, at para. 5, citing Raymond E. Brown, The Law of Defamation in Canada (2nd ed. (loose-leaf)), at para. 7.3)

See also Hiltz and Seamone Co. v. Nova Scotia (Attorney General) (1997), 164 N.S.R. (2d) 161 (S.C.), at para. 21, aff’d in part (1999), 173 N.S.R. (2d) 341 (C.A.); Grant, at para. 119; “Truth” (N.Z.) Ltd. v. Holloway, [1960] 1 W.L.R. 997 (P.C.); Lambert v. Thomson, [1937] O.R. 341 (C.A.),per Rowell C.J.O.; see also Pullman v. Walter Hill & Co., [1891] 1 Q.B. 524, at p. 527, per Lord Esher M.R.

[17]                          Mr. Crookes argues that, under this definition, a person who includes a hyperlink on a webpage has “published” any defamatory remarks to which the hyperlink leads, because that person has done an act which “has the effect of transferring the defamatory information” to any third person who clicks on the link.

[18]                          Under this sole disseminator/sole reader paradigm, the breadth of activity captured by the traditional publication rule is vast.  In R. v. Clerk (1728), 1 Barn. K.B. 304, 94 E.R. 207, for example, a printer’s servant, whose only role in an act of publication was to “clap down” the printing press, was found responsible for the libels contained in that publication, despite the fact that he was not aware of the contents (p. 207).  In Hird v. Wood (1894), 38 S.J. 234 (C.A.), pointing at a sign displaying defamatory words was held to be evidence of publication.  Other cases have also held that acts merely facilitating communication can amount to publication: see, e.g., Buchanan v. Jennings, [2004] UKPC 36, [2005] 1 A.C. 115; Polson v. Davis, 635 F.Supp. 1130 (D. Kan. 1986), aff’d 895 F.2d 705 (10th Cir. 1990); Crain v. Lightner, 364 S.E.2d 778 (W. Va. 1987), at p. 785; and Spike v. Golding(1895), 27 N.S.R. 370 (C.A.).  And in McNichol v. Grandy, the defendant was found to be liable when he raised his voice and made defamatory statements that were overheard by someone in another room. 

[19]                          The publication rule has also captured the following range of conduct:

[The defamatory meaning] may be communicated directly by the defendant either orally, or in some written or printed form, or by way of a symbolic ceremony, dramatic pantomime, mime, brochure, gesture, handbill, letter, photograph, placard, poster, sign, or cartoon.  It may be inscribed on a blackboard, posted on a mirror or a telephone pole, or placed on the wall of a building or the gable wall of the defendant’s property, or on the front of a cheque, or entered in a database, or accessed on or downloaded from a website on the internet.  It may appear on an ariel banner flown behind an airplane, or someone’s attention may be drawn by the defendant to a poster, or a defamatory writing already in circulation.  A third party may be given access to defamatory material, or defamatory matter may be left in a place where others can see it, or the defendant may request others to go to a place where the defamatory information is available to see and read it, or it may be set into motion as a result of the defendant’s death.  In each case there is publication.


(Brown, at para. 7.3)

[20]                          Defendants obtained some relief from the rule’s significant breadth with the development of the “innocent dissemination” defence, which protects “those who play a secondary role in the distribution system, such as news agents, booksellers, and libraries”:  Allen M. Linden and Bruce Feldthusen,Canadian Tort Law (8th ed. 2006), at pp. 783-84; see also Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada v. Canadian Assn. of Internet Providers, 2004 SCC 45, [2004] 2 S.C.R. 427 (“SOCAN”), at para. 89; Philip H. Osborne, The Law of Torts (4th ed. 2011), at p. 411.  Such “subordinate distributors” may escape liability by showing that they “have no actual knowledge of an alleged libel, are aware of no circumstances to put them on notice to suspect a libel, and committed no negligence in failing to find out about the libel” (SOCAN, at para. 89; Vizetelly v. Mudie’s Select Library Ltd., [1900] 2 Q.B. 170 (C.A.), at p. 180;  Brown, at para. 7.12(6)(c); and also Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada v. W. H. Smith & Son Ltd., [1933] All E.R. Rep. 432, at pp. 434 and 436). 

[21]                          Recently, jurisprudence has emerged suggesting that some acts are so passive that they should not be held to be publication.  In Bunt v. Tilley, [2006] EWHC 407,[2006] 3 All E.R. 336 (Q.B.), considering the potential liability of an Internet service provider, the court held that in order to hold someone liable as a publisher, “[i]t is not enough that a person merely plays a passive instrumental role in the process”; there must be “knowing involvement in the process of publication of the relevant words” (para. 23 (emphasis in original); see also Metropolitan International Schools Ltd. v. Designtechnica Corp., [2009] EWHC 1765 (Q.B.)). 

[22]                          Acknowledging these developments, the question on this appeal is whether a simple reference — like a hyperlink — to defamatory information is the type of act that can constitute publication.  Some helpful guidance on this point is available in two American cases.  In Klein v. Biben, 296 N.Y. 638 (1946), the New York Court of Appeals decided that a statement saying “For more details about [the plaintiff], see the Washington News Letter in The American Hebrew, May 12, 1944” was not a republication of the May 12 libel.

[23]                          And in MacFadden v. Anthony, 117 N.Y.S.2d 520 (Sup. Ct. 1952), a complaint of defamation was dismissed in a case where a radio host “called attention to [an allegedly defamatory] article in Collier’s Magazine” (p. 521).  Relying on Klein, the court concluded that referring to the article was neither a republication nor a publication of the libel.

[24]                          These cases were relied on in Carter v. B.C. Federation of Foster Parents Assn., 2005 BCCA 398, 42 B.C.L.R. (4th) 1, where the plaintiff alleged that, by mentioning the Internet address of an online discussion forum, the publisher of a newsletter was responsible for republishing defamatory comments published on that site.  Relying on MacFadden and Klein for the proposition that “reference to an article containing defamatory comment without repetition of the comment itself should not be found to be a republication of such defamatory comment” (at para. 12), Hall J.A. held that there was no publication. 

[25]                          I agree with this approach.  It avoids a formalistic application of the traditional publication rule and recognizes the importance of the communicative and expressive function in referring to other sources.  Applying such a rule to hyperlinks, as the reasons of Justice Deschamps demonstrate, has the effect of creating a presumption of liability for all hyperlinkers, an untenable situation in my view. 

[26]                          A reference to other content is fundamentally different from other acts involved in publication.  Referencing on its own does not involve exerting control over the content.  Communicating something is very different from merely communicating that something exists or where it exists.  The former involves dissemination of the content, and suggests control over both the content and whether the content will reach an audience at all, while the latter does not.  Even where the goal of the person referring to a defamatory publication is to expand that publication’s audience, his or her participation is merely ancillary to that of the initial publisher: with or without the reference, the allegedly defamatory information has already been made available to the public by the initial publisher or publishers’ acts.  These features of references distinguish them from acts in the publication process like creating or posting the defamatory publication, and from repetition. 

[27]                          Hyperlinks are, in essence, references.  By clicking on the link, readers are directed to other sources.  Hyperlinks may be inserted with or without the knowledge of the operator of the site containing the secondary article.  Because the content of the secondary article is often produced by someone other than the person who inserted the hyperlink in the primary article, the content on the other end of the link can be changed at any time by whoever controls the secondary page.  Although the primary author controls whether there is a hyperlink and what article that word or phrase is linked to, inserting a hyperlink gives the primary author no control over the content in the secondary article to which he or she has linked.  (See David Lindsay, Liability for the Publication of Defamatory Material via the Internet, Research Paper No. 10, University of Melbourne Centre for Media, Communications and Information Technology Law (2000), at pp. 14 and 78; M. Collins, The Law of Defamation and the Internet, at paras. 5.42 and 2.42 to 2.43.) 

[28]                          These features — that a person who refers to other content generally does not participate in its creation or development — serve to insulate from liability those involved in Internet communications in the United States: see Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230 (1996); see also Jack M. Balkin, “The Future of Free Expression in a Digital Age” (2009), 36 Pepp. L. Rev. 427, at pp. 433-34; Zeran v. America Online Inc., 129 F.3d 327 (4th Cir. 1997); Barrett v. Rosenthal, 40 Cal.4th 33 (Cal. 2006); Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.Com LLC, 521 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. 2008).

[29]                          Although the person selecting the content to which he or she wants to link might facilitate the transfer of information (a traditional hallmark of publication), it is equally clear that when a person follows a link they are leaving one  source and moving to another.  In my view, then, it is the actual creator or poster of the defamatory words  in the secondary  material who is publishing the libel when a person follows a hyperlink to that  content.  The ease with which the referenced content can be accessed does not change the fact that, by hyperlinking, an individual is referring the reader to other content .  (See Dell Computer Corp. v. Union des consommateurs, 2007 SCC 34, [2007] 2 S.C.R. 801, at paras. 97-102.)

[30]                          Hyperlinks thus share the same relationship with the content to which they refer as do references.  Both communicate that something exists, but do not, by themselves, communicate its content.  And they both require some act on the part of a third party before he or she gains access to the content.  The fact that access to that content is far easier with hyperlinks than with footnotes does not change the reality that a hyperlink, by itself, is content neutral — it expresses no opinion, nor does it have any control over, the content to which it refers.

[31]                          This interpretation of the publication rule better accords with our Court’s recent jurisprudence on defamation law.  This Court has recognized that what is at stake in an action for defamation is not only an individual’s interest in protecting his or her reputation, but also the public’s interest in protecting freedom of expression: Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto, [1995] 2 S.C.R. 1130.

[32]                          Pre-Charter approaches to defamation law in Canada largely leaned towards protecting reputation.  That began to change when the Court modified the “honest belief” element to the fair comment defence in WIC Radio Ltd. v. Simpson, 2008 SCC 40, [2008] 2 S.C.R. 420, and when, in Grant, the Court developed a defence of responsible communication on matters of public interest.  These cases recognize the importance of achieving a proper balance between protecting an individual’s reputation and the foundational role of freedom of expression in the development of democratic institutions and values (Grant, at para. 1; Hill, at para. 101).

[33]                          Interpreting the publication rule to exclude mere references not only accords with a more sophisticated appreciation of Charter values, but also with the dramatic transformation in the technology of communications.  See June Ross, “The Common Law of Defamation Fails to Enter the Age of theCharter” (1996), 35 Alta. L. Rev. 117; see also Jeremy Streeter, “The ‘Deception Exception’: A New Approach to Section 2(b) Values and Its Impact on Defamation Law” (2003), 61 U.T. Fac. L. Rev. 79; Denis W. Boivin, “Accommodating Freedom of Expression and Reputation in the Common Law of Defamation” (1996-1997), 22 Queen’s L.J. 229;  Lewis N. Klar, Tort Law (4th ed. 2008), at pp. 746-47; Robert Danay, “The Medium is not the Message: Reconciling Reputation and Free Expression in Cases of Internet Defamation” (2010), 56 McGill L.J. 1; the Hon. Frank Iacobucci, “Recent Developments Concerning Freedom of Speech and Privacy in the Context of Global Communications Technology” (1999), 48 U.N.B.L.J. 189; and Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844 (1997), at p. 870. 

[34]                          The Internet’s capacity to disseminate information has been described by this Court as “one of the great innovations of the information age” whose “use should be facilitated rather than discouraged” (SOCAN, at para. 40, per Binnie J.).  Hyperlinks, in particular, are an indispensable part of its operation.  As Matthew Collins explains, at para. 5.42:

Hyperlinks are the synapses connecting different parts of the world wide web.  Without hyperlinks, the web would be like a library without a catalogue: full of information, but with no sure means of finding it.

(See also Lindsay, at pp. 78-79; Mark Sableman, “Link Law Revisited: Internet Linking Law at Five Years” (2001), 16 Berkeley Tech. L.J. 1273, at p. 1276.)

[35]                          The centrality of the role of hyperlinks in facilitating access to information on the Internet was also compellingly explained by Anjali Dalal in “Protecting Hyperlinks and Preserving First Amendment Values on the Internet” (2011), 13 U. PaJ. Const. L. 1017: 

     Hyperlinks have long been understood to be critical to communication because they facilitate access to information.  They provide visitors on one website a way to navigate to internally referenced words, phrases, arguments, and ideas.  Under this view, if the Internet is an endless expanse of information where “any person . . . . can become a pamphleteer” then “[h]yperlinks are the paths among websites, creating the bustling street corners for distribution of those pamphlets and inviting passersby to engage more deeply with the issues raised.” 



     . . .While the concerns motivating cases brought against hyperlinks are often legitimate, limiting the use of links poses a significant danger to communication and future innovation. [Citations omitted; pp. 1019 and 1022.]

[36]                          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.  

[37]                          I do not for a moment wish to minimize the potentially harmful impacts of defamatory speech on the Internet.  Nor do I resile from asserting that individuals’ reputations are entitled to vigorous protection from defamatory comments.  It is clear that “the right to free expression does not confer a licence to ruin reputations” (Grant, at para. 58).  Because the Internet is a powerful medium for all kinds of expression, it is also a potentially powerful vehicle for expression that is defamatory.  In Barrick Gold Corp. v. Lopehandia (2004), 71 O.R. (3d) 416 (C.A.), at para. 32, Blair J.A. recognized the Internet’s “tremendous power” to harm reputation, citing with approval the following excerpt from Lyrissa Barnett Lidsky “Silencing John Dow: Defamation & Discourse in Cyberspace” (2000), 49 Duke L.J. 855, at pp. 863-64: 

     Although Internet communications may have the ephemeral qualities of gossip with regard to accuracy, they are communicated through a medium more pervasive than print, and for this reason they have tremendous power to harm reputation.  Once a message enters cyberspace, millions of people worldwide can gain access to it.  Even if the message is posted in a discussion forum frequented by only a handful of people, any one of them can republish the message by printing it or, as is more likely, by forwarding it instantly to a different discussion forum.  And if the message is sufficiently provocative, it may be republished again and again.  The extraordinary capacity of the Internet to replicate almost endlessly any defamatory message lends credence to the notion that “the truth rarely catches up with a lie.”  The problem for libel law, then, is how to protect reputation without squelching the potential of the Internet as a medium of public discourse. [Blair J.A.’s emphasis removed.]

[38]                          New activities on the Internet and the greater potential for anonymity amplify even further the ease with which a reputation can be harmed online:

The rapid expansion of the Internet coupled with the surging popularity of social networking services like Facebook and Twitter has created a situation where everyone is a potential publisher, including those unfamiliar with defamation law.  A reputation can be destroyed in the click of a mouse, an anonymous email or an ill-timed Tweet.


(Bryan G. Baynham, Q.C., and Daniel J. Reid, “The Modern-Day Soapbox: Defamation in the Age of the Internet”, in Defamation Law: Materials prepared for the Continuing Legal Education seminar, Defamation law 2010 (2010))

[39]                          But I am not persuaded that exposing mere hyperlinks to the traditional publication rule ultimately protects reputation.  A publication is defamatory if it both refers to the plaintiff, and conveys a defamatory meaning: Grant, at para. 28.  These inquiries depend, respectively, on whether the words used or “the circumstances attending the publication are such as[] would lead reasonable persons to understand that it was the plaintiff to whom the defendant referred” (Brown, at para. 6.1), and whether the words would “tend[] to lower a person in the estimation of right-thinking members of society” (Botiuk v. Toronto Free Press Publications Ltd., at para. 62).  Defamatory meaning in the words may be discerned from “all the circumstances of the case, including any reasonable implications the words may bear, the context in which the words are used, the audience to whom they were published and the manner in which they were presented” (Botiuk, at para. 62, citing Brown (2nd ed. 1994), at p.1-15).  (See Brown, at paras. 5.2, 5.4(1)(a) and 6.1; Knupffer v. London Express Newspaper, Ltd., [1944] A.C. 116 (H. L.); Butler v. Southam Inc., 2001 NSCA 121, 197 N.S.R. (2d) 97; Bou Malhab v. Diffusion Métromédia CMR inc., 2011 SCC 9, [2011] 1 S.C.R. 214, at paras. 63 and 112; Botiuk, at para. 62.) 

[40]                          Where a defendant uses a reference in a manner that in itself  conveys defamatory meaning about the plaintiff, the plaintiff’s ability to vindicate his or her reputation depends on having access to a remedy against that defendant.  In this way, individuals may attract liability for hyperlinking if the manner in which they have referred to content conveys defamatory meaning; not because they have created a reference, but because, understood in context, they have actually expressed something defamatory (Collins, at paras.  7.06 to 7.08 and 8.20 to 8.21). This might be found to occur, for example, where a person places a reference in a text that repeats defamatory content from a secondary source (Carter, at para. 12).

[41]                           Preventing plaintiffs from suing those who have merely referred their readers to other sources that may contain defamatory content and not expressed defamatory meaning about the plaintiffs will not leave them unable to vindicate their reputations.  As previously noted, when a hyperlinker creates a link, he or she gains no control over the content linked to.  If a plaintiff wishes to prevent further publications of the defamatory content, his or her most effective remedy lies with the person who actually created and controls the content. 

[42]                            Making reference to the existence and/or location of content by hyperlink or otherwise, without more, is not publication of that content.  Only when a hyperlinker presents content from the hyperlinked material in a way that actually repeats the defamatory content, should that content be considered to be “published” by the hyperlinker.  Such an approach promotes expression and respects the realities of the Internet, while creating little or no limitations to a plaintiff’s ability to vindicate his or her reputation.  While a mere reference to another source should not fall under the wide breadth of the traditional publication rule, the rule itself and the limits of the one writer/any act/one reader paradigm may deserve further scrutiny in the future.

[43]                          I am aware that distinctions can be drawn between hyperlinks, such as the deep and shallow hyperlinks at issue in this case, and links that automatically display other content. The reality of the Internet means that we are dealing with the inherent and inexorable fluidity of evolving technologies.  As a result, it strikes me as unwise in these reasons to attempt to anticipate, let alone comprehensively address, the legal implications of the varieties of links that are or may become available.  Embedded or automatic links, for example, may well prove to be of consequence in future cases, but these differences were not argued in this case or addressed in the courts below, and therefore need not be addressed here.

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