Liability for internet links

Decision of the Local Court of Hamburg of May 12, 1998 (312 O 85/98)

For the first time, a German court has ruled that the provision of Internet links may make the owner of a web site liable for statements contained in the linked third party web site.

The Defendant is the owner of an Internet web site which offered a collection of links to third party web sites containing statements about the Plaintiff, a controversial attorney and TV presenter in Germany. On his web site, the Defendant included a disclaimer according to which responsibility for linked third party statements would only lie with each respective author. As some of the linked third party web sites contained defamatory statements about the Plaintiff, the Plaintiff applied to the Local Court of Hamburg for an injunction to prohibit the Defendant's links to such third party web sites and to award the payment of damages against the Defendant. The Plaintiff argued that the provision of links to defamatory third party sites constituted a defamatory act by the Defendant under German law. The Defendant (who apparently was aware of the defamatory statements) was of the view that his links only opened a "market of opinions" for which he was not responsible.

The Local Court of Hamburg found in favour of the Plaintiff. The Court was of the opinion that the presentation of the Internet links represented an endorsement of the defamatory third party web sites. It did not agree with the contention of the Defendant that the Internet links would only open a "market of opinions". Instead, the Court relied on German case law established with respect to the print media business. According to such case law, the distribution of defamatory statements of third parties constitutes a defamatory act by itself if the distributor does not clearly dissociate himself from such statements. The Court found that such precedents are also applicable to Internet links. As the Defendant's disclaimer was not, in its view, sufficient to dissociate from the statement of the linked web sites, it granted the injunction requested and ordered the payment of damages (which mainly related to the costs of the proceedings).
The information and opinions contained in this document are not intended to be a comprehensive study, nor to provide legal advice, and should not be relied on or treated as a substitute for specific advice concerning individual situations.

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