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An online slanging match over a 9/11 conspiracy book that quickly degenerated into a vitriolic war of words is now the subject of a $42.5-million defamation case.

The case could be a landmark case as it may set a precedent around the responsibilities of website owners to police the comments published by readers.

Greg Smith, a small Sydney film producer specialising in conspiracy theories, claims he is now millions of dollars out of pocket after he was defamed on the forums of Australian community website zGeek.com.

Smith had been contracted by a group of Eastern European investors to produce a film called Merchant Of Death, a documentary about the life and times of alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is being held in Thailand waiting for the outcome of an extradition request from the US.

But the film deal was axed after the overseas party that contracted Smith to make the film allegedly stumbled across the comments on the zGeek forum and decided Smith's reputation was too damaged to continue.

Smith, 34, is now suing Sydneysider Tony Brisciani, owner of zGeek, in the Supreme Court for $42.5 million plus an amount for damage to his reputation.

Smith is separately suing the Filmnet message board over similar defamation claims, while Smith's partner, Jonathan Nolan, is also separately suing both zGeek and Filmnet.

Merchant of Death, which would have contained an interview with Bout, was likely to be a controversial documentary as its synopsis suggests it is in favour of Bout, claiming he has been arrested on "trumped up charges".

Bout is believed to have been the inspiration behind Nicolas Cage's character in the 2005 film Lord of War. He stands accused of supplying weapons to several nations, rebel groups, the Taleban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda.

Smith said Merchant of Death was a working title and had no connection to the book of the same name, also about Bout, written by the US journalists Douglas Farrah and Stephen Braun.

Smith has also previously produced several other controverisal documentaries including Fortunate Sons, which examines the 9/11 attacks, the Bush regime and the war on terror.

The attacks on Smith began after he entered a discussion on the zGeek site about the book The Third Truth, which claims the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers in New York was the result of nuclear weapons installed by Israeli intelligence service Mossad.

Smith wrote that "the arguments and evidence presented are very convincing", but the forum community quickly turned on him, claiming he was connected with the publisher.

One user said Smith's company, Myrmidon Enterprises, and his film, Merchant Of Death, did not exist and that Smith was a "nutcase scam artist" who has made "false job postings".

Smith's address was soon discovered and some zGeek users said they would go to his house to "pay Greg Smith a visit".

The insults became harsher once Smith requested an apology and asked that the defamatory material be removed.

In a phone interview, Smith admitted that he used to be a senior partner with Pisces All Media, which published the 9/11 book, but claimed he stopped working there several years ago after he was diagnosed with cancer.

He had employed some former colleagues at Pisces to help him with Merchant Of Death but claims he "had nothing to do with the book" and had "never done any of the things I have been accused of [on zGeek]".

"Rough and tumble I've got no problem with, that's part of normal life interactions, but when what's been said constitutes defamation and affects me or anyone in a professional sense, then that's something that's going too far," Smith said in a telephone interview.

In a phone interview, Brisciani, 35, agreed that the comments on his forum were nasty but claimed that he was not liable because he was only asked to remove the material once legal action had commenced.

"From the original complaint ... I thought they were forum trolls [online abusers] so I basically just ignored it and banned them from the site," he said.

"Once I got the letter from the lawyer the next day, I removed the posts."

Smith and Brisciani's lawyer appeared briefly in the NSW Supreme Court yesterday, where the judge ordered Smith to refile his application as it was not in the correct format. Smith said he planned to do this by Friday.

In the original summons, seen by this website, Smith had spelled Brisciani's name incorrectly.

Colin Jacobs, spokesman for the online user's lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia, said the case highlighted the cloud of uncertainty that hovers over forum moderators in Australia.

"In countries such as the US, specific exemptions exist to shield website owners from defamation claims such as this," Jacobs said.

"We wouldn't say it should just be open slather, but if a forum owner goes so far as to take down potentially defamatory statements when asked, they probably shouldn't then be liable for massive damages. Bankrupting forum owners who operate in good faith doesn't encourage healthy discussion in Australia."

In September 2007, 2Clix, a software company, sued community website Whirlpool over comments published on its message board, asking for $150,000 in damages and an injunction requiring Whirlpool to remove forum threads highly critical of 2Clix's accounting software.

2Clix withdrew the case a few days later following significant bad press and claims that it was bringing the lawsuit in order to silence its critics.


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