What should be done about libel law and the internet?

Another point of discussion at C&binet conference ’09 was the law. There was general consensus libel laws in the UK need to be changed to accommodate for the migration of news online and to make sure the law is clear. On a board of suggestions as to what the government should do to encourage hyperlocal, one post-it note read: “Get rid of draconian libel laws”.  There are two main issues regarding libel and the internet – the law is unclear, which makes citizens uneasy about publishing online, and secondly the law is too strict and should look more like our American counterpart. 

One of the hazy areas in the British law is regarding defamatory remarks made in comments on an article. It is accepted if the comments are post-moderated and the publisher has not seen the comment they are not liable, providing when they are notified they remove the comment.

Another gray area is deciding which websites constitute ‘publishers’ because there is a defence if you can prove you are simply a platform for a forum.

There’s also the part of the law (from 1849) which still says every new publication of a defamatory comment (every click, copy paste, link) acts as a new act of libel. Combined with the nature of the internet means you can sue a publication from anywhere in the world in this country, attracting so-called ‘libel tourists’ come to London to sue, although California recently ruled against such practises.

Here’s an extract on US Libel law concerning the internet on wikipedia:

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 generally immunizes from liability parties that create forums on the Internet in which defamation occurs from liability for statements published by third parties. This has the effect of precluding all liability for statements made by persons on the Internet whose identity cannot be determined.

Section 230 was not part of the original Senate legislation, but was added in conference with the House, where it had been separately introduced as the Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act and passed by a near-unanimous vote on the floor. It added protection for online service providers and users from action against them for the actions of others, stating in part that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”. Effectively, this section immunizes ISPs and other service providers from torts committed by users over their systems, even if the provider fails to take action after actual notice.

Basically libel laws in the US don’t apply to anonymous comments on blogposts. UK publishers online want “immunity for defamation arising from comments”, “widening the Freedom of Information Act to apply to organisations who receive public money above a certain amount” and making libel laws clear for internet users.

One comment

  1. In many cases horrible problems have been avoided for the community as a result of anonymous blogging. This includes whistle blowing for white-collar criminals, community awareness when sexual predators move into the neighborhood, and many other alerts that are of great community benefit.

    Benefits notwithstanding, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and anonymous free speech on the Internet is one such omelette. There is no such thing as free speech; there is always a cost. Sometimes that cost is acceptable, moreover desirable, particularly in the case of positive community awareness. However, often their many false and deceptive rumors, and libelous attacks are motivated only by hatred and vindictive antisocial promptings. More often than not, these serial cyber defamers have some type of antisocial personality disorder. They have nothing better to do than hurt other people; in fact they are actually fueled by other people’s pain. Normal people like 97% of the readers of my comment cannot begin to relate to how these people think. Stop for a moment and imagine not having a conscience….. it is simply impossible.

    A concerted, focused and malicious Internet smear campaign can be as devastating for a person that relies on his or her reputation for employment as a fire can be for a farmer who loses his fields, barns, and livestock.

    Respectfully submitted by Michael Roberts.
    Internet Libel Victim’s Advocate.

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