Friday, 19 November 2010

An open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron: #libelreform needed to protect free speech online

Despite significant advances made by the libel reform coalition over the past twelve months, including a commitment to new legislation to reform the illiberal English and Welsh libel laws, it is still vital that all those interested in defending freedom of expression and the uninhibited movement of ideas maintain pressure on the government to deliver.

The latest boost to the momentum behind the libel reform campaign is an open letter, written by Yahoo!, the discussion forum Mumsnet and the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA), calling on the Prime Minister to urgently reform the unfair libel laws in this country.

The signatories to the letter are particularly concerned by the current 'multiple publications rule,' which holds that an allegedly defamatory statement is considered to be a new libel against a claimant not just upon publication, but every time said statement is downloaded or accessed online - potentially thousands of times a day in the case of high-traffic websites such as Mumsnet.

Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet, also raised the unfair implications the current libel laws have for large websites with many comments posted by third parties, for which hosts are currently responsible and potentially liable; Justine said:
Mumsnet Talk receives around 25,000 new posts each day; it is impossible for us to pre-moderate each one, even if we wished to do so. It is both impractical and unfair that we should be threatened with legal action (and the attendant costs) over individual posts by third parties.

Stating the case for web service providers, Nicholas Lansman, Secretary-General of the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA), said:
ISPs are currently in a position where they may have to decide what bears defamatory meaning, putting the intermediary in a position of judge and jury over content. We therefore support the call for an innocent dissemination defence, that ISPs should only be forced to remove defamatory material that has been decreed defamatory by a court or competent authority, and to bring libel law into the twenty-first century through the creation of a single publication rule.
ISPA's position is particularly delicate given the current government's position towards net neutrality, which is set to allow the creation of a tiered internet service with those willing and able to pay more gaining access to the fastest and selected content - the rest of us presumably having to make to do with a more threadbare worldwide web. In combination with the libel laws' requirement for ISPs to effectively censor potentially defamatory content, the free expression of information and ideas faces a pincer movement - and the open letter to the Prime Minister aims to draw attention to the impact of the latter.

The open letter is published to coincide with the publication of a guide to the libel laws as they stand, written by Sense about Science (pdf), which aims to inform bloggers and online journalists of the options they have if they are threatened with libel litigation. As the potentially disastrous consequences of facing legal action - including financial ruin and suppression of information of vital importance to public well-being - become more widely apparent, the guide sets out how to deal with being sued for libel and is essential reading for those who post online.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Two chilling reminders of the urgent need for #LibelReform

Just hours after bloggers united to urge their readers to sign up to the Libel Reform Campaign's petition*, news reaches us via Sense about Science of yet another chilling deployment of libel law to silence the discussion of evidence in the public interest - and as I write this post, I've learned of another libel case attempting to settle matters of scientific interest through the High Court.

More on that story later - first, boobies.

It appears that Dr. Dalia Nield, a consultant plastic surgeon at The London Clinic, has been threatened with legal action by the cosmetics manufacturer Rodial; this action follows Dr. Nield expressing doubts over the efficacy of 'Boob Job,' a £125 cream made by Rodial - Dr. Nield was quoted in a Daily Mail article on October 1st (published online September 30th), and in taking exception to her comments Rodial chose to sue her and not the Mail.

In sharing her doubts over the claims Rodial make for their cream (that two months topical application would lead to a larger, firmer bust), Dr. Nield said
The manufacturers are not giving us any information on tests they have carried out. They are not telling us the exact ingredients in the product and how they increase the size of the breast.’

The doctor even claimed the gel could be ‘potentially dangerous’.

‘It may even harm the skin and the breasts – we need a full analysis

This is the latest in a long line of cases where apparently legitimate concerns over a product or treatment are treated as libellous, with comments made in the public interest being shut down by threatening heavy-handed legal action; as Sense about Science said,
Dr Simon Singh was sued for criticising the lack of evidence for chiropractic in the treatment of some infant disorders; consultant cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst is being sued by NMT Medical for speaking about data from a clinical trial of a medical device; Dr Ben Goldacre was sued by a vitamin manufacturer for questioning claims to treat HIV/AIDS with vitamins.
Adding to this growing list of libel victims, you can read a moving and sobering account of the chilling effects of libel law on one of the most respected bloggers around - Andy Lewis of the Quackometer blog recalls his libel troubles and shares a never-before-talked-about case, demonstrating just how pernicious the current law and its use in silencing critical debate are.

This list of defendants, to which Dr. Nield is now to be added, share in common their desire to debate evidence surrounding medical practices or products that they believe could cause harm. Their accusers, those who bully them with libel threats, are just as united in their conviction that critical commentary is to be silenced via the courts and ruinously expensive legal battles.

In chosing to sue Dr. Nield and not her publishers, Rodial follow the tactics of the British Chiropractic Association in targeting Simon Singh for his article criticising the claims made by their practitioners and not the Guardian who published it - and that of NMT, who chose to sue Peter Wilmshurst and not the American magazine who published his comments. And yet as Andy Lewis says, in his case(s) it was his internet service providers who were threatened. The pattern if there is one appears to be one of targeting the weak, those least likely to defend themselves and most likely to cave in to bullying.

In a further development, Simon Singh has just tweeted about another case where a dispute over the scientific validity of a study has spilled over into the High Court. Respected charity the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is being sued for libel by a Cheshire couple who claim that when the RSPB criticised their methodology in a study on black grouse, they libelled them. In defending the RSPB and calling for the case to be struck out, Adam Wolanski made a succinct argument that I for one find compelling:
scientific disputes are not for the courts.
Whether boob jobs or birds, miracle cures or medical devices, it is vital that scientists and writers are free to discuss the merits of the evidence before them without the chilling threat of libel action. Whilst the libel laws exist in their current form, companies and individuals will continue to deploy them as a reputation management tool, attempting to silence those who dare to criticise them in public - both Dr. Nield and the RSPB stand accused of libel for doing nothing more than discussing scientific evidence (or lack thereof) in the interests of the public, and if we don't want to add to their number we must fight for the libel laws to be changed.

*I took part in this 'mass blog event', as did so many other bloggists. Apart from the Quackometer's brilliant blog linked to above, you can find other excellent contributions from Jack of Kent, Dr*T at Thinking is Dangerous, Dr Aust's Spleen, the Lunchtime Legend (who has a list of other contributors too), Apathy Sketchpad, and Dr. Stephen Curry. Please read these blogs, please sign the libel reform petition if you haven't already done so, and please please resolve to get at least one other person to sign today - now more than ever we need to emphasise the need to make our libel laws fairer and more liberal.

[NB this post was edited to correct a spelling error that meant I got Dr. Dalia Nield's name wrong - and for an HTML fail - apologies, and thanks to @zeno001 for spotting the errors! Serves me write for rushing this post out in about ten minutes so early in the morning!]

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Mass #LibelReform blog - Fight for Free Speech!

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, complied by the Libel Reform Coalition, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. Now, my own blogging is neither of sufficient quality, nor is it high-profile enough, to attract libel suits - and yet many of the bloggers I consider amongst the best writers in their field have been threatened with chilling legal action in response to them publicly discussing material that is in the public domain and in the public interest.

In short, Free Speech is Not for Sale concluded that the current English (and Welsh) libel laws are extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

You'll know about the most prominent cases of libel law being used to silence criticism, either through reading my own posts or through those by excellent bloggers and journalists elsewhere - with immense strength of character and sheer determination to fight for the right to free expression, the likes of Drs. Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst have helped highlight just how pernicious our libel laws are and the urgency with which they must be reformed for the public good. What you'll know less about are the myriad instances of self-censorship, where for fear of being landed in hot water a writer decides not to publish their thoughts - it's this chill which needs to be lifted if open, evidence-based and honest discourse is to be defended.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at , share this and other blog posts that are part of the Mass Libel Reform blog on Twitter, Facebook, water coolers or noticeboards, and keep the momentum going for a campaign that aims to protect what is in my opinion the hardest-fought and most precious of our civil liberties - the freedom to speak out mind, to debate the facts and to hold power to account, without the fear of persecution.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

If #ScienceIsVital, then despite all the caveats, so is (carefully regulated) animal research

An edited version of this post is cross-posted at The Vibe Online, an excellent political internet magazine.

To many, science and politics just don't mix - oil and water, polar opposites, as the classic primary school experiment holds. Looking at the sacking of drugs adviser Prof. David Nutt, the continued public provision of magical empty placebo pills, and the apparent relegation of clinical evidence in deciding which drugs to provide to patients, recent evidence would hardly suggest otherwise.

And yet science is very much at the heart of the political discourse, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the likes of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), who in the run-up to the 2010 UK General Election managed to put science centre-stage as a key battleground.

Further proof that science plays a role in political life came with the recent Science is Vital campaign, which successfully mobilised thousands of clinicians, lab scientists, lecturers and passionate supporters of the scientific world-view to affect real influence on government policy - as a direct result of the excellent work Dr. Jenny Rohn and her team did in such a short space of time, science now faces a cash freeze, which given the counterfactual of 25% cuts that were mooted, is some result.

The role of science in society once again emerged as a matter of political controversy yesterday as Liberal Democrat MP for Torbay Adrian Sanders wrote of the need for a targeted reduction in animal experiments.

Had he left it at that, I contend, there would be no controversy, no argument - it is crucial that animal experimentation be restricted as far as possible to the necessary, the useful, the justifiable - indeed, a central tenet of the Home Office regulations relating to scientific animal experimentation is the 3Rs - Reduce, Reuse, Recyc... oh no, wait, it's Reduce, Refine, Replace.

Mr. Sanders chooses to focus on the final R, that of replacing animals with experiments in vitro (cells in dishes), in silico (computerised model systems) or in homo (non-toxic tests on human subjects such as skin-tolerance tests). Again, had he chosen to do so on the grounds that such testing is more effective, had he presented evidence to back up his claim that
  • [d]espite the fact that many governments, international bodies and researchers are encouraging non-animal alternatives, they are not being implemented even though these tests are more reliable,
his stance may have been more credible. Instead, Mr Sanders chose to rehash some tired myths about the use of animals in research, and mistakenly conflated the use of animals for cosmetic testing with that for medical purposes.

Take the following examples:
  • Mr. Sanders says,
    The numbers of animals used in experiments has been rising steadily over the past few years; up to 3.6 million in 2009 (whilst the number of individual procedures is far higher).
    The fact is this is the number of procedures carried out and not animals used, and represents a reduction from 2008 of around 1%. The more long-term trend has been for a marked reduction in animal testing since its peak in the 1970s (at over 5.5 million), with a small rise since 2000 - again, according to official Home Office stats (Figure 1 in this report),
    There has been a significant reduction in the annual number of scientific procedures since 1976, this trend levelled out in the second half of the 1990s and in recent years there has been an increase in the number of procedures. The total number of procedures was a third (+33% or +905,000) higher than in 2000, mostly accounted for by breeding to produce GM and HM animals (+834,000 higher, of which mice +734,000). Excluding such breeding, the total was slightly higher than in 2000 (+3% or +70,000)

  • Mr. Sanders says,
    A recent poll conducted by YouGov in the UK, Germany, France, Sweden, Italy and the Czech Republic showed that the majority of people are against the use of primates, cats and dogs in animal testing, because causing severe suffering to any species for experiments which are not for serious or life-threatening human conditions is unacceptable.
    According to Home Office statistics (pdf),
    Dogs, cats and non-human primates combined were used in less than half of one percent of all procedures, with a combined total of 10,500. This was 600 lower than in 2008.
    indicating that they represent a very small and decreasing fraction of the totality of animal research - this doesn't negate the public's aversion to the use of such animals entirely, but is a point to which we shall return.

  • Mr. Sanders says,
    Targets [of how many animals should be used in research] may be able to signal that less suffering will be tolerated and certain types of experiments excluded, such as experiments that are motivated by commercial advantage.
    And yet, although I don't have the statistics to hand, I am willing to wager that the majority of the public would not reject out-of-hand commercially available treatments that have been tested on animals if they thought the benefit from those treatments were sufficient.
And here we reach the crux of the matter. In citing public opposition to the use of dogs, cats and non-human primates, Mr. Sanders seeks to justify his call for a blanket reduction of animal research - in his words - 'regardless of its scientific merits.' In using an emotive argument detached from the facts, Mr. Sanders falls into the trap that animal-rights groups all to often deploy - pulling on the heartstrings from the perspective of the animals, and failing to communicate the positive contribution that research on animals has had in modern medicine.

Indeed, I'd go as far as to say that if animal experimentation is unpopular, it is the responsibility of the scientific community to publicise the advances in their fields that are taken from granted but would not be possible without at least some animal testing. Of course some organisations such as Pro-Test and the Lasker Foundation do just that in some form, but clearly there is a long way to go to win over the public, and the harder that animals rights campaigners such as the BUAV make it for scientists to stand up and make their case the less chance there will ever be of us doing so.

Besides which, the public popularity or otherwise of animal research, whilst not an unimportant consideration, is only one of the variables we need to take account of in deciding how scientific research proceeds. Whilst the use of animals is not simply a utilitarian matter of pragmatic matter of cost-benefit analysis, the benefit to wider society must be accounted for when government sets its policy.

Which brings me to my final point. The government's current policy on the use of animals in research results in a robust regime, in which animal use is tightly regulated and controlled; as such it represents an excellent framework that insists on the 3Rs, whilst allowing medical research to progress towards a greater understanding of disease and of potential therapies - if we consider science to be vital, so is the judicious use of animals therein.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Dr. Peter Wilmshurst faces second libel suit as NMT escalates its libel action against him

Cardiologist Dr. Peter Wilmshurst will be well-known to readers who are engaged with the movement to reform English and Welsh libel laws - Peter was sued nearly three years ago by the medical device manufacturers NMT, over comments made to an American website regarding a clinical trial of an NMT product and its effects on migraine patients.

As the libel reform campaign has made clear, this represents an unacceptable abuse of English libel law to silence critical debate that is being presented on scientific terms - and disputes regarding the scientific merits or otherwise of drugs, therapies and devices ought to be conducted through lab research, academic conferences and peer-reviewed publications, not through expensive and intrusive legal wrangling in the high court.

It's now emerged that NMT is threatening to sue Dr. Wilmshurst for a second time, this time over comments he made in a pre-recorded piece for the Today Programme on the chilling effects of England’s libel laws on scientific and medical discussions. The interview was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 27th November 2009.

Made just weeks before Dr. Wilmshurst's original case was due to appear in court, this new threat compounds the legal chill cast upon Dr. Wilmshurst and his ability to raise concerns over NMT's medical device in public - and demonstrates that despite significant progress made by the Coalition government in seeking to address libel reform, without root-and-branch reform the current libel laws remain a significant barrier to the dissemination of scientific ideas and the communication of medical information to doctors and patients.

The new threat of libel action drew strong criticism from activists seeking to defend free speech. Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science and part of the libel reform campaign said:
We should be very grateful that Peter has been willing to fight on to defend the importance of open discussions in medicine. But we should be very worried about the many cases where people have no chance of standing up to the threats of organisations with legal and financial muscle and have no choice but to fall silent

Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, said:
It seems odd to be suing someone now for comments they made almost a year ago. It's called the Today Programme because it's topical. Peter Wilmshurst went onto the programme to discuss the original libel action which NMT brought against him. At this rate, the only option for Peter Wilmshurst appears to be total silence on the subject - which would go against his public spirit and his integrity as a scientist

Mark Lewis, solicitor for Dr Wilmshurst said:
There is something wrong with a system where it is cheaper to let someone die than to speak out about what might not make them better

Jonathan and Mark's comments are particularly telling - if topical items cannot be discussed; if medically relevant information cannot be disseminated; if the scientific discourse is shut down - all for fear of the libel sledgehammer slamming down on your livelihood, how can we claim to live in a civilised democracy that nurtures evidence-based public debate?

Peter's fight to defend his comments, and more importantly his right to make such comments - and that of so many others - continues, and we can only wish him all the best as he stands up for free speech.