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Open letter to the Prime Minister

***UPDATE Facebook joins call for urgent reform of libel laws***

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.

See coverage

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 

Richard Allan, Director of Policy EU, Facebook 

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

Lisa Fitzgerald, Senior Counsel, AOL (UK) Limited 

Nicholas Lansman, Secretary-General, 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.

Justine Roberts, CEO, Mumsnet

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)

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

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

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

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

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


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.”