A university lecturer has secured a court order for £70,000 damages against an unknown party who falsely named him as a rapist and bully on a Google blog set up in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
Granting damages and ancillary relief in Paul Blackledge v Persons Unknown, Mr Justice Saini described the case as 'a striking example of how the internet and social media can be used to abuse and damage innocent individuals with apparent impunity'.
The action was brought by Dr Paul Blackledge, a politics lecturer, for libel, harassment and for breach of the General Data Protection Regulation arising from a series of blog posts made from an end-to-end encrypted email service based in Switzerland. He also sought an order under section 13 of the Defamation Act 2013 requiring Google to remove the website hosting the blog.
Following a request by Blackledge’s counsel, the judge agreed to proceed in the absence of the defendant and was satisfied that Blackledge 'has never committed any form of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape'. The judge accepted the 'extremely grave' meaning of the blogs and that they had a substantial readership. 'The #metoo hashtag is often a trending topic on social media and would lead to further widespread publication,' he observed.
The judge awarded the claimant £70,000 for the libel and harassment claims and agreed the s13 order as 'likely to be the only remedy that is capable of providing effective and meaningful protection to [Blackledge's] civil rights.'
The judge conceded that the damages were unlikely to be paid. 'Given the lengths [the defendant] has gone to obscure their identity, and failure to respond to the letter of claim, it is highly unlikely that the real identity would successfully be ascertained,' he said.
The defendant was also ordered to pay Blackledge's £44,877 costs in full. 'In the event that the defendant is identified in the future, our client will seek to enforce this order and the damages award against them - as well as seek their committal in the event of any breach of the injunction,' Iain Wilson, partner at London defamation firm Brett Wilson, told the Gazette.
The judgment 'highlights how seriously the court takes online defamation and, in particular, allegations of sexual misconduct,' Wilson added. 'This is the first reported order against Google under section 13 of the Defamation Act, which provides that the court may make an order against a non-party intermediary. Unfortunately, the general legislative steer under the act shifts liability away from intermediaries who are sadly too often reluctant to accept any sort of responsibility for defamatory, private or offensive content posted on their platforms.'
Ben Hamer, instructed by Brett Wilson, appeared for Blackledge. The defendant was unrepresented.