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.


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