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Wessex to sue over net 'slur' on conference

The Wessex Institute of Technology is planning to sue an Austrian university for alleged defamation on the Internet.

The case will be the latest of a series of writs issued in the United Kingdom and abroad that may help to define the limits to freedom of speech on the Internet.

The institute claims that three academics from the Institute of Computer Graphics at the Technical University of Vienna made defamatory comments about a conference which it is organising for June, "Visualisation and Intelligent Design in Engineering and Architecture, Videa 95".

The academics, Werner Purgathofer, Eduard Groeller and Martin Feda, made the comments after sending in spurious abstracts for consideration which were provisionally accepted.

Two of the academics were on the scientific advisory board for the conference.

In a message posted to the comp.graphics newsgroup of the Internet, the institute's director Carlos Brebbia said that the abstracts were provisionally accepted "in good faith". But, he said: "During the preparation of the conference programme certain questions were raised about the abstracts submitted by the people from Vienna and they were not included in the provisional programme".

Lance Sucharov, responsible for publishing at the institute, said: "The Internet seems to be considered as a bit of a free-for-all. We're quite shocked because the people concerned are meant to be helping us with the subject."

Professor Brebbia was the founder of the institute, which started as a provider of specialist training. He had formerly worked at the department of civil engineering at Southampton University.

He is an expert in computational mechanics. Later the institute started to organise conferences on subjects as varied as water pollution, urban transport and the maintenance of historic buildings. It also has about 20 students doing research degrees, some validated by Portsmouth University.

"We're hoping to build up to a size where we can validate them ourselves," said Mr Sucharov.

The disagreement comes as other libel suits are gathering pace in the UK and the United States. London-based lecturer Laurence Godfrey has alleged that he was libelled by a physicist based at Cern, near Geneva: the case comes to the High Court in July.

Meanwhile in the US, the stockbroking firm Stratton Oakmount is suing the American Internet provider Prodigy, alleging that it was libelled on one of Prodigy's bulletin boards.

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