Bloggers, tweeters, webpage owners and other providers and hosts of internet content can breathe a little easier today following a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada that ruled that merely providing hyperlinks to defamatory content cannot make them liable for defamation.

That said, while the decision provides clear support from the highest court in the land for both free expression and the preservation of the nature and benefits of the internet as whole, it stops short of giving hyperlinkers a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for all uses and presentations of links to defamatory material. 

The much-anticipated decision in Crookes v. Newton, 2011 SCC 47concerned a defamation action grounded on the posting by a website operator of two simple hyperlinks to defamatory content located on other sites. The website operator refused to remove the links upon request by the plaintiff, and the plaintiff brought an action in defamation in British Columbia, where he was unsuccessful both at trialand at a subsequent appeal to the B.C. Court of Appeal. At issue before the Supreme Court was the question of whether a simple hyperlink reference to defamatory information could constitute a “publication,” a key element of the tort of libel.

The case had been very closely watched by the internet community, as a negative ruling had the potential to impose an unprecedented chilling effect on the way content is shared online, effectively subverting one of the fundamental underpinnings of the design of the World Wide Web.

While the majority acknowledged in their judgement that the internet is a potentially powerful vehicle for defamatory expression, they also explicitly recognized the indispensability of hyperlinks in facilitating access to online information, and ruled so as to preserve the ability of users to provide basic links to third party content without fearing that they will become legally responsible for that content. The majority likened simple hyperlinks (which merely reference the existence and location of content) to footnotes or references, noting that both are necessarily content-neutral, with the poster having no control over the content to which they refer, and that both require some act on the part of the reader before the content can be accessed.   This type of basic link, the Court ruled, does not amount to an expression of meaning and cannot possibly be a publication of defamatory material.

While the decision provides clear immunity for providing simple hyperlinks to defamatory content, the three separate judgements that underlie the decision (either concurring or concurring in the result) leave the door open to potential liability for hyperlinking in other ways and contexts. Moreover, the decision may have significant implications with respect to liability for hyperlinking other types of prohibited or unauthorized content

Beyond the scenario of simple hyperlinking, which the Court found will not attract liability, things get murkier. The majority appears to conclude that for those hyperlinking to third party content, only repetition of the defamatory statement in the link or associated text will attract liability; however, in joint concurring reasons, Chief Justice McLachlan and Justice Fish purported to “clarify” that, notwithstanding the apparent bright line test set out in the majority judgement, defamation would also be possible where the text indicates adoption or endorsement of the hyperlinked content, even if it doesn’t repeat the defamatory statement. In a separate judgement that concurred in the result, Justice Deschamps favoured a more nuanced approach, where content posters would attract liability for defamation if they deliberately make the defamatory information readily available to a third party in a comprehensible form (although the defence of innocent dissemination may still be available). In light of these varying approaches, it will be interesting to see how Canadian courts may deal with hyperlinking liability issues on different facts and in different contexts.

The majority also noted that, in an era of rapidly evolving technologies, it may become necessary to consider in the future the liability that could be attracted by other types of links, which are or may become available, such as embedded or automatic links. (The facts before the Court involved one “shallow” link to a site’s homepage and one “deep” link to a specific page further down in the site’s hierarchy of content).

Finally, while the Crookes decision dealt exclusively with publication in the context of defamation, it may have broader implications for liability for hyperlinking to other types of prohibited or unauthorized content. For example, some commentators have argued that the Court’s interpretation of publication may have implications for the meaning of “publication” or “reproduction” under the Copyright Act.  

The approach could also conceivably raise implications for criminal liability. For example, the offence of public incitement of hatred focuses on the act of “communicating statements” in a public place.Bill C-51, introduced in the last session or Parliament, but yet to be reintroduced, following the spring election, included a provision that would have amended the offence to indicate that “communicating” would include “making available,” which, as pointed out by the accompanying Legislative Summary, would include providing a hyperlink to the offending material.

Although the Crookes ruling is an important victory for content posters and internet supporters generally, there are still many aspects of the legal implications of linking to unauthorized or illegal content that remain to be definitively settled in Canadian law.