Google India to face trial in pre-2009 defamation case

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that a 2009 law, which diluted the liability of third-party intermediaries over any published content, would not apply to a pre-2009 defamation case filed against Google India by Visaka Industries over an allegedly defamatory write-up on asbestos.

Visaka Industries filed the complaint after the company said it issued legal notices asking Google India to take down the write-up. Google then moved the Andhra High Court for quashing the proceedings, but did not get any relief.

On Google’s appeal, the Supreme Court stayed the proceedings till it had applied its mind to the issues involved. On Tuesday, a bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan and KM Joseph ordered that the case be sent back to a Secunderabad magistrate for a trial.

The relaxation in the liability of third-party intermediaries, the court said, would not be available to pre-2009 cases, especially defamation cases.

The complainant, a public limited company, claimed that it manufactured asbestos cement sheets in all its plants in an environment-friendly manner, but was still targeted by the coordinator of the Ban Asbestos India group. The coordinator wrote a piece against the company, which it claimed injured its reputation.

The service provider (Google) made it easier than ever before to disseminate the defamatory statements to the worldwide audience over the Internet, without taking any due care and diligence to prevent it, Visaka Industries claimed.

The court took note of the earlier version of Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, which was kept at bay the impact of other laws. After an amendment, the law exempted third-party intermediaries if they had removed the offensive material once their attention was drawn to it.

A subsequent court judgement clarified that it would be exempt only if it had taken the offensive material down following a government or court order.

That benefit was not available to the respondent in this case despite the government backing the argument that even in pre-amendment, an intermediary could not know the contents of what was posted on its website and, therefore, be held liable in the absence of a takedown order by a court or government agency.