Law Commission report defends internet freedom

UK libel laws are stifling freedom of expression on the internet, according to a recent Law Commission report.

The report claims that internet service providers (ISPs) have become “tactical targets” for claimants, who can often force them to remove material from servers, regardless of its truth or whether it is in the public interest. This could conflict with freedom of expression, as protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

ISPs can avoid liability for defamatory material if they show they took reasonable care to prevent it and, once alerted, took steps to remove it. But some ISPs are said to receive up to 100 complaints a year, each costing anywhere between 50 and 1,000 to deal with. Two years ago, Demon Internet paid out more than 200,000 to settle a libel action.

The report says that ISPs should be exempted from liability altogether – as in the US – or that the “innocent dissemination” defence be extended.
Defamation expert Andrew Stephenson of Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners said: “A lot of nonsense has been talked about freedom of expression. The fact is that some people use [internet newsgroups] to make serious allegations on the basis that they are unlikely to be traced”.