An open letter to prime minister David Cameron

 

Rt Hon David Cameron MP
10 Downing Street London SW1A 2AA

18th November 2010


Dear Prime Minister,

We are writing to ask that you introduce urgent reforms in the Government's proposed draft Defamation Bill to protect open discussion on the internet.

The English law of defamation is having a disproportionate, chilling effect on online writers, e-communities and web hosts:

The libel laws have not been updated to address the rise of online publication. The current multiple publication rule, dating back to 1849, defines every download as a publication and a potential new cause of action.

Internet service providers can be held liable for comments they host and therefore are inclined to take down material or websites even before the writer or publisher has been made aware of a complaint. Such intermediaries usually have no access to the background or relevant facts and should not be expected to play judge and jury in determining whether a writer's material is defamatory or not. This is a decision that can and should only be made by the direct parties involved.

Online blogs and forums are available around the world and there appear, in practice, to be few restrictions on material published substantially on matters and concerning parties and reputations elsewhere being the subject of legal action in English courts.

The Internet is used for publication by millions of ordinary citizens for whom the current defences to an action for defamation have not been developed.

We ask that the Government's draft Bill provide the following protection for discussion on the Internet:

  1. ISPs and forum hosts – 'intermediaries' - should not be forced to take down material without a determination by a court or competent authority that the content is defamatory. The claimant should in the first instance approach the author rather than an uninvolved intermediary.
  2. There should be a single publication rule and a limitation period of one year from original publication.
  3. Claimants in libel law should demonstrate that there has been a substantial tort in the jurisdiction in which they bring proceedings.
  4. There should be a public interest defence in cases where the material is on a matter of public interest and the author has acted in accordance with expectations of the medium or forum.

Signed

Emma Ascroft, Director, Public & Social Policy, Yahoo! UK & Ireland

Lisa Fitzgerald, Senior Counsel, AOL (UK) Limited

Nicholas Lansman, Secretary-General, Internet Service Providers' Association, which represents providers of Internet services in the UK. It has over 200 members representing 95 per cent of the access market.

Justine Roberts, CEO, Mumsnet

cc Lord McNally, Minister of State for Justice

Last updated: 19-Nov-2010 at 8:01 AM