Facebook, Yahoo!, AOL, Mumsnet and the ISPA to David Cameron: libel reform needed to protect free speech online
19 Nov 2010

Facebook, Yahoo!, AOL (UK), Mumsnet and the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) have written an open letter to the Prime Minister David Cameron calling for urgent reform of our libel laws. Currently, forum providers and ISPs are being forced to act as judge and jury over the content of websites, blogs and online discussions. The effect is that libel threats are causing online content to be censored, even when the material is not actually defamatory. The internet companies are angered that the multiple publication rule which they are bound by, predates not only the invention of the internet, but that of the light bulb

The call for reform, comes in a week when a worrying report on the effect of our libel laws on online free speech has been submitted to the Ministry of Justice. The report which includes the results of a survey of bloggers and forum hosts highlights the chilling effect the law is having on online publication.1 The Libel Reform Campaign of English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science has been advocating wholesale reform of our libel laws for a year, during which they have collected 54,000 public signatures for reform, persuaded half of all eligible MPs in the last Parliament to back reform and got a manifesto pledge from all three main political parties at the last general election. A draft Libel Reform Bill is expected in the New Year.

Nicholas Lansman, Secretary-General of the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA), which represents providers of Internet services in the UK and has over 200 members representing 95 per cent of the access market 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.”

Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet said: “Mumsnet fully supports these proposals for the reform of our libel laws. 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. Problematic posts are usually surrounded by many more that put alternative points of view, meaning that damage to the reputation of individuals or corporations is rare. We take care to behave responsibly where people’s reputations are concerned, and are happy to remove posts that make damaging allegations that seem to lack an evidential basis; but the current laws require us to go much further than this, and to repeatedly delete posts that do no more than express a point of view, or outline an individual’s experience. The government’s new defamation bill must acknowledge the significant differences between online communications and printed materials, and provide a new legal context in which the free exchange of ideas and opinions is allowed to flourish.”

Jo Glanville, Editor, Index on Censorship said: “It is essential that libel laws are modernised to allow for the free exchange of information and discussion online. The revolution in technology over the past decade has redefined the very meaning of publishing and the law has not even begun to catch up. As a result, bloggers, ISPs and anyone who posts online are especially vulnerable to threats of legal action. As well as limiting the duration of liability for online publication, new legislation is urgently needed to differentiate between the different modes of online communication and to take account of context. The current lack of distinction only serves to stifle free speech at a time when we should all be enjoying the possibilities of new technology to the full.”

Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science, one of the charities in the Libel Reform Campaign, said: “The internet has increased everyone’s ability to discuss issues such as local politics, medical treatments or the behaviour of institutions. We cannot expect, and the public do not credit, forum discussions with the same standards of fact-checking as national news outlets, but the law currently insists on this. We agree with the service providers that better protection for online discussion is needed in the Government’s new Defamation Bill.”

Dr Evan Harris of the Libel Reform Coalition said: “Radical law change is needed to prevent vested interest bullies chilling public interest debate on the internet. The Government need to listen to the concerns of the on-line world if we are to have the freedom of expression that the arts and the sciences really need in order to benefit from the new social media.”

Jean-Marc Fleury, World Federation of Science Journalists said: “Punitive British libel laws matter to science reporters anywhere. In recent years, foreign claimants have been bringing libel actions in English courts, often against defendants who are neither British citizens nor residents. This ‘libel tourism’ has been encouraged by the Internet, which means something published online that can be accessed from the U.K. could be considered ‘published’ there. So someone looking to squelch a scientific report it doesn’t like will sue them in a British court.”

Peter Noorlander, the Media Legal Defence Initiative said: “Many web publishers lack the expertise and financial resources to defend against libel actions and are particularly vulnerable to threats. In order to promote a vibrant online media environment, the Media Legal Defence Initiative aims to provide legal expertise that would otherwise not be available.”

2 responses to “Facebook, Yahoo!, AOL, Mumsnet and the ISPA to David Cameron: libel reform needed to protect free speech online”

  1. muondo says:

    la liberté d’expression très importante merci de rapeller ce petit axiome cher à tous les défenseurs de la liberté individuelle et contre les big brothers du monde!

  2. Nick Cohen says:

    Mumsnet? Now you’re playing hardball.