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Bloggers and Libel Law

“So you’ve had a threatening letter. What can you do?”

 A new guide to the libel laws for bloggers is being published today.

bloggers guideThe guide, entitled ‘So you’ve had a threatening letter. What can you do?’, is published by Sense About Science in association with Index on Censorship, English PEN, the Media Legal Defence Initiative, the Association of British Science Writers and the World Federation of Science Journalists.

The guide was prepared following Sense About Science’s recent survey of the impact of the libel laws on online discussion.

To coincide with the guide’s publication, Sense About Science is making available a summary of the effects of the English libel laws on bloggers,  drawn from cases that have come to attention since the start of the Libel Reform Campaign and from the recent survey of bloggers. The summary identifies the particular ways in which online forums are affected by the current laws, notably: 

  • the individual and non-professional character of much online writing, and therefore the more pronounced inequality of arms, particularly where people are writing about companies, institutions and products; 
  • related to the above, the relative lack of familiarity with libel law and access to advice about handling complaints;
  • the liability of ISPs, leading to material being removed without consultation with authors;
  • and  the vulnerability to legal action arising from the international availability of Internet material, and it being possible to republish old material by downloading it.

Reform of English libel law has been promised, and if campaigners are successful, then changes that will give better defences to online publishers and writers may come into force in 2012.

This leaflet is certainly not a substitute for legal advice, but it does provide information which other bloggers and writers who have experienced libel threats say they wished they had known at the outset.

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The publication of the guide comes on the day that Yahoo!, AOL UK, Mumsnet and the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) are writing to the Prime Minister calling for urgent reform of our libel laws, and in the week where the summary of the effects of libel law on bloggers has been shared with the Ministry of Justice.

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, one of the charities in the Libel Reform Campaign, 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.”

Coverage

The Telegraph online, Mumsnet founders demand libel law reform

BBC Radio 5 Live, Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet on letter to PM calling for libel reform (2hrs 51mins in)

Index on Censorship, Yahoo!, AOL, Mumsnet and the ISPA to David Cameron: libel reform needed to protect free speech online

journalism.co.uk, Yahoo and AOL UK join petition to modernise UK libel law

Guardian Online - Political Science, Dr Evan Harris, Libel reform on the internet - We need it now

Guardian Online - The Lay Scientist, Martin Robbins, A libel guide for bloggers

ZDNet UK, Facebook, Yahoo and ISPs plead for UK free speech

The Observer, Now the libel law sharks are going for the little guy

Prateek Buch Consider, evaluate, act, An open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron: #libelreform needed to protect free speech online

Simon Denegri (Chief executive of Association of Medical Research Charities), (Science) Bloggers of the world unite

ITProPortal 24/7, Facebook, Yahoo And AOL Join Petition For Libel Law Reform

Thinking is dangerous, Bloggers and Libel Law - Sense About Science

Media law and ethics, Sense About Science releases legal leaflet for bloggers

Top 10.com Broadband News, Online freedom of speech must be safeguarded, says ISPA

ISP Review UK, Content Providers and UK ISPs Urge Government to Protect Internet Free Speech

The Register, Protect our bloggers… and ISPs

Computeractive, Internet companies call for PM to change libel laws