Reforms to England’s libel laws will not do enough to protect free speech. A powerful parliamentary committee believes further steps are needed to prevent big corporations using their financial muscle to gag opponents by threatening legal action.
It also wants extra measures to protect scientists and academics who are publishing legitimate research, and to prevent trivial claims ever reaching court.
The committee has been scrutinising the Coalition’s proposals to end the international embarrassment that sees rich and powerful foreigners flocking to our courts to silence critics.
The report from the joint committee on the draft Defamation Bill says many of the Government’s proposals, particularly a move to end trial by jury except in the most serious cases, are worthwhile. But it says the plans are modest and do not address the key problem in defamation law, the unacceptably high costs associated with defending cases.
Recommendation that websites be held responsible for anonymous comments
See article from bbc.co.uk
Websites should have protection from defamation cases if they act quickly to remove anonymous postings which prompt a complaint, a report says. A joint parliamentary committee tasked with examining libel reform says it wants a cultural shift so that posts under pseudonyms are not considered true, reliable or trustworthy, But it says websites which identify authors and publish complaints alongside comments should get legal protection.
The committee proposes a new notice and takedown procedure for defamatory online comments – aimed at providing a quick remedy for those who are defamed and to give websites which use the procedure more legal protection.
It recommends that where complaints are made about comments from identified authors – the website should promptly publish a notice of the complaint alongside it. The complainant can then apply to a court for a takedown order – which if granted, should result in the comment being removed, if the website is to avoid the risk of a defamation claim.
But where potentially defamatory comments are anonymous, the website should immediately remove them on receipt of a complaint, unless the author agrees to identify themselves, the report says. The author of the comment can then be sued for defamation but if a website refuses to take down an anonymous remark it should be treated as its publisher and face the risk of libel proceedings.
The report also says a website could apply to a court for a leave-up order, if it (is rich enough and) considers the anonymous comment to be on a matter of significant public interest.
But Mumsnet, a parenting website, says many of its members rely on the ability to ask questions or post comments anonymously. Many of the women posting messages do so under a user name, rather than their real name – and the site is worried the proposal will mean more people demanding messages be taken down.
Its co-founder, Justine Roberts, said while it was right to stop people from assassinating the character of others from behind the cloak of anonymity the report did not recognise how useful anonymous postings were in allowing people to speak honestly about difficult real-life situations. The recommendations could have a chilling effect on sites like Mumsnet where many thousands of people use anonymity to confidentially seek and give advice about sensitive real-life situations.
Under the current law, websites are liable for defamatory statements made by their users. If they fail to take down a post when they receive a complaint, they risk being treated as the primary publisher of the statement.
So how is a website to know if users correctly identify themselves anyway?