In a decision that may have serious ramifications for Internet publishers, Australia’s highest court ruled yesterday that a local businessman could bring a libel action against New York publishing company Dow Jones & Co. in Australia over an article published in the United States and distributed over the Internet.1 The landmark ruling is the first instance in which the highest court in any country has found jurisdiction in a defamation case based solely on publication over the Internet.
The plaintiff, Joseph Gutnick, brought suit in a local Australian court, claiming he was defamed by an article published in Barron’s, a Dow Jones weekly magazine published in the United States and also made available online. Dow Jones argued that the libel action should be heard in the United States, instead of Australia, since the article was “published” when it was uploaded onto its servers in New Jersey. The Court rejected this contention, finding that an Internet article is published wherever it is read, not where the publisher is based. According to the High Court, in the case of material on the World Wide Web, defamatory statements are not available in comprehensible form until downloaded onto a computer that can pull the material from the web server. Consequently, the damage to reputation occurs where a person downloads the material.
The High Court’s ruling creates a dangerous global precedent that could subject Internet publishers to defamation actions anywhere in the world where articles are downloaded. The decision could be especially significant for U.S.-based publishers since many countries, including Australia and the United Kingdom, are viewed as having much more stringent libel and defamation laws than the United States. Furthermore, this decision could ultimately restrict the information distributed over the Internet if publishers are forced to tailor content to comply with all foreign libel laws.
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1 Dow Jones & Co., Inc. V. Gutnick,  HCA 56 (10 December 2002), available at http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/high_ct/2002/56.html#fnB16.