Mumsnet calls for a change in the libel law, May 2006

Like many other website publishers, we have long maintained that libel law has not caught up with the digital age with the result that freedom of expression is being unacceptably curtailed. Now that we have settled our long running dispute with Gina Ford, we intend to campaign energetically for a review of how libel legislation applies to the internet.

Put crudely, the current legal situation is the rough equivalent of trying to use a set of railway signals to control the air traffic over Heathrow – the principles may be fine but different forms of communication, just like different forms of transport, require a different approach. Currently the law regards a bulletin board just as it does a newspaper or a book.

In fact the Law Commission, the body which advises the government on legislation, recognised this problem in 2002, warning that a rethink of defamation law was needed to protect freedom of speech online.

At the time Hugh Beale QC, one of the law commissioners, warned: "When a website carries material to which someone objects - rightly or wrongly - it is often easier to complain to the ISP than to the author. The problem is that the law puts ISPs under pressure to remove sites as soon as they are told that the material on them may be defamatory. There is a possible conflict between the pressure to remove material, even if true, and the emphasis placed on freedom of expression by the European Convention of Human Rights."

Since then, however, no changes have been made to the law governing defamation on the internet and we believe website publishers running bulletin boards now find themselves in a similar position to that described by Mr Beale. Faced with any complaint about a bulletin board posting, website publishers, frequently small businesses or individuals with limited resources, find themselves with little choice but to remove the posting, with obvious consequences for freedom of speech.

Mumsnet has this week written to the Department of Constitutional Affairs urging the government to reconsider this area in its forthcoming consultation on defamation. In particular we have asked to government to address these points:

  1. Does holding websites liable for postings by users on their bulletin boards have the effect of unacceptably curtailing freedom of expression?
  2. Is a website which swiftly removes material following a complaint protected from liability for the posting? And how swift is swift?
  3. Should the different nature of bulletin board communication be taken into account in assessing whether a complainant has been defamed? For instance if a single poster makes a defamatory comment but is immediately rebutted by a large number of users should the resulting thread be resulted as defamatory? Or should there be a requirement to consider bulletin board conversations in the whole?

We would stress that we accept that individuals have a right to protect their reputations. However this right always has to be balanced against the rights of others to freedom of expression. At present we believe that this balance is not struck in the right place.

9 May, 2006

Last updated: 11 months ago