Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The fight to protect online free speech

In an open letter to the Prime Minister, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL and the Internet Service Providers (Ispa), have called for the current libel laws, dating back to 1849, to be brought firmly into the 21st century and protect online free speech.

Nicholas Lansman, Ispa’s secretary-general, 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.” This is a position that social networking sites, message boards and blogs no longer want to be in.

The multiple publication rule is the biggest issue, - this 19th century decree means a comment on the Internet is ‘published’ every time someone accesses it. Hence, libel actions have no limit. The line should be drawn at one year – say online publishers and ISPs, and a public interest defense should be able to cite this.

There were pledges of reform from both sides of the coalition during the run up to the election, but the Private members Defamation Bill, published on 26th May 2010, has not satisfied the online world. Ispa submitted a report to the Ministry of Justice prior to the open letter, detailing the free speech issues.

Lansman added. “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."

The current laws predate the light bulb, but hopefully the new draft libel reform Bill expected in the New Year will bring the online community out of the dark.

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