Feeds

MPs: 'Chilling' new libel law will CENSOR THE TRUTH online

We're not trolling, you can silence a site with an email

High performance access to file storage

A proposed overhaul to the UK's stringent libel law could have "a chilling effect on those publishing material online", an influential human rights committee warned today.

The tabled amendments to the law of defamation could force website owners to take down defamatory material on request even if there is a valid legal defence to keep it online. That's according to Parliament's human rights joint-select committee, which criticised the draft legislation.

As the law stands right now, there are a number of defences to publishing a statement that damages a person's reputation. One such defence is simply the provable truth: it is defamatory, for instance, to call someone a crook, but it is a justified statement if, say, a court has found them guilty of fraud.

But Clause 5 of the proposed legislation allows someone to order a website to take down a defamatory statement about them regardless of any valid legal defence. If the website complies and censors itself, it can avoid further litigation. If the website operator chooses to stand by the defamatory material then it must run the gauntlet of the High Court.

It's this crucial Clause 5 that the committee of MPs and peers have urged the government to change. The panel's report reads:

We are not satisfied with the government's distinction in this matter. We think there is a real risk that website operators will be forced to arbitrate on whether something is defamatory or lawful, and to readily make decisions on commercial grounds to remove allegedly defamatory material rather than engage with the process.

As drafted, Clause 5 risks removing material from the internet, which, although it may be defamatory, may be lawful if a relevant defence applies. Material which is lawful may be suppressed because website operators are served with such notices. We recommend that the threshold for a Clause 5 notice should be elevated to 'unlawful', which would also ensure consistency with the E-Commerce Directive and the Pre-Action Protocol for defamation.

The committee chairman MP Hywel Francis said the panel welcomed the steps that had been taken in the bill to "protect website operators who are merely hosting content" to allow them to have a defence against the content published on their sites.

But he said they were concerned that freedom of speech could be threatened if the government didn't introduce a "higher threshold" to protect against material said to be defamatory being removed from the internet.

The committee said in its report that, under any new law, a defamatory statement should "only unlawful... if there are no defences that can be made against a claim for defamation, such as if the statement is true or if there is a public interest that the information should be published and the publisher has acted responsibly in testing the truthfulness of it".

The MPs and peers also called into question the bill's planned public interest defence to offer more protection to publishers by arguing that it lacked clarity.

"We propose an alternative that is both clearer and more flexible. This would help to ensure that the bill fulfils its main aim of rebalancing the law of defamation in favour of freedom of speech," the committee concluded in its report.

There has been an explosion in reports of online trolling cases in the UK this year, in part because local newspapers have heavily covered web attacks on ordinary folk as well as celebrities. In many incidences, the plod has investigated a nasty tweet or sick Facebook post in response to public pressure or demands from angry mobs on social networks.

The defamation law amendments are working their way through Westminster and a House of Lords committee will scrutinise the proposals next.

Separately, the Director of Public Prosecutions is putting the finishing touches to interim guidelines on how offences involving social networks and the internet should be prosecuted. He has previously warned cops in England and Wales to approach such cases in a measured way to avoid what he said could end up being millions of web trolling offences being prosecuted in courts across the land.

Late last month, the Law Commission opened a public consultation on contempt of court and the internet after a wave of high-profile cases of contempt online. ®

3 Big data security analytics techniques

More from The Register

next story
Putin tells Snowden: Russia conducts no US-style mass surveillance
Gov't is too broke for that, Russian prez says
Did a date calculation bug just cost hard-up Co-op Bank £110m?
And just when Brit banking org needs £400m to stay afloat
One year on: diplomatic fail as Chinese APT gangs get back to work
Mandiant says past 12 months shows Beijing won't call off its hackers
Whoever you vote for, Google gets in
Report uncovers giant octopus squid of lobbying influence
Lavabit loses contempt of court appeal over protecting Snowden, customers
Judges rule complaints about government power are too little, too late
MtGox chief Karpelès refuses to come to US for g-men's grilling
Bitcoin baron says he needs another lawyer for FinCEN chat
Don't let no-hire pact suit witnesses call Steve Jobs a bullyboy, plead Apple and Google
'Irrelevant' character evidence should be excluded – lawyers
EFF: Feds plan to put 52 MILLION FACES into recognition database
System would identify faces as part of biometrics collection
Ex-Tony Blair adviser is new top boss at UK spy-hive GCHQ
Robert Hannigan to replace Sir Iain Lobban in the autumn
Alphadex fires back at British Gas with overcharging allegation
Brit colo outfit says it paid for 347KVA, has been charged for 1940KVA
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Learn about three of the top mobile application security threats facing businesses today and recommendations on how to mitigate the risk.
Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
SANS - Survey on application security programs
In this whitepaper learn about the state of application security programs and practices of 488 surveyed respondents, and discover how mature and effective these programs are.