At the risk of appearing obsessive, I am posting for the third time (after these posts) on the vexed question of the state of libel law after the Mumsnet settlement with the childcare author Gina Ford. I do consider that, while laws against defamation are necessary, there is a threat to free speech on the Web from unclear and antiquated libel laws, and that that issue has not been given enough attention by policymakers.
In my previous posts I tried to summarise, so far as my lay knowledge permitted, the grounds for concern about the mess that constitutes libel law relating to the Web. Almost as soon as I'd posted my comments, I came across a much clearer explanation by an author who, unlike me, has academic and professional expertise in the field. He is Michael Geist, a professor of Internet law, writing last year on this subject for the BBC. His brief article is worth reading in full but the relevant section is this:
Given how easily content can be forced off the internet with claims of defamation, the law creates a significant restriction on free speech.
Intermediaries are understandably reluctant to ignore threats of litigation, yet without a legal safe harbour that protects them from liability, it is likely that the number of questionable defamation claims will continue to rise.
Addressing the free speech issue would require legislative change.
For example, the United States enacted a law 10 years ago that provides broad immunity for intermediaries that host third-party content. That provision has since been used dozens of times to immunize ISPs, large companies such as Amazon.com, and small websites who could ill-afford to fight legal challenges.
A similar provision in the Commonwealth countries would protect sites such as P2Pnet, as well as the thousands of ISPs, websites, and bloggers, who are contributing to a robust online dialogue, but today find themselves vulnerable to lawsuits whose primary purpose may be to suppress legitimate speech.
This is an admirably succinct summary of the problem. As I indicated in my earlier posts, I have no specialist knowledge in this field but unsought and apparently unique experience relevant to it. (Last year, I defeated with ease a purported libel claim that was both worthless and stupefyingly inept, but it was still a cost to me in time and money - as well as a waste of the court's time - to despatch it.) I shall be making a fuss on this subject, here and elsewhere, till - I hope - the law is made applicable to a digital age.