In a step towards defining the contours of freedom of speech for online chat groups, the Delhi High Court has held that administrators of WhatsApp, Telegram and similar social networking services cannot be held guilty of defamation if the members of the group post libellous and obscene messages.
Dismissing a defamation case filed against the administrator of a chat group, a single-judge bench of Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw said: “I am unable to understand as to how the administrator of a group can be held liable for defamation, even if any, by the statements made by a member of the group. To make an administrator of an online platform liable for defamation would be like making the manufacturer of the newsprint on which defamatory statements are published liable for defamation.”
The judge pointed out that the group administrators are not required to, or empowered to, filter all the messages before they are posted. “It is not as if without the administrator’s approval of each of the statements, the statements cannot be posted by any of the members of the group on the said platform,” said the court.
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Justice Endlaw specified that when an online chat group is created, its administrator can only advise its members to refrain from posting objectionable content.
“When an online platform is created, the creator thereof cannot expect any of the members thereof to indulge in defamation, and defamatory statements made by any member of the group cannot make the administrator liable,” said the judge, observing that the complainant would have to establish his case if he pleaded otherwise.
The court was hearing a defamation suit filed against the administrator of a chat group, Vishal Dubey. Various buyers of a housing project in Haryana’s Gurugram district had posted messages on the group, venting their grievances against delay in getting possession of their flats.
Some of these messages targeted Ashish Bhalla, who was earlier associated with a real estate firm that had launched the project. Bhalla then filed a defamation suit in the high court, accusing members of the groups of defaming him and maligning his image, especially when he was not associated with the housing project anymore.
The suit asked for permanent injunction against all the members from posting anything against him and also sought monetary damages. Bhalla also made the buyers’ association a party to the suit but he later withdrew the complaint against the association.
Bhalla made Dubey one of the parties in his defamation suit, alleging that he was the administrator of one such group and hence liable for the content.