Defamation Bill Introduced To UK Parliament

Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament. Photographed by Deryc Sands.

Lord Lester has introduced a Defamation Bill to the UK Parliament in order to clarify aspects of the the law regarding libel and slander.  One of its intents appears to be to clear up the current gray area for ISPs and forum owners with regard to defamatory postings and their responsibilities.

(This has been brought as a private member’s bill, which means that it’s not officially part of the Government’s legislative programme although it is seen as supportive.  The Bill will receive its second reading on 9th July which strangely is the first opportunity for the Bill to be debated and there’s a long way to go after that. You can read about the British legislative process here.)

Moving onto the geeky stuff, the Bill specifically refers to material stored “by electronic means” although any defence that the existing law didn’t cover the Internet has long been dismissed.

However,  the Bill does propose that there is a defence against defamatory action for “facilitators” provided that they remove the offending material with 14 days of being notified in writing.  A “facilitator” is considered to be someone concerned with “storage or transmission…of the content…and has no other influence or control”.  This is clearly aimed at ISPs, forum owners or any website that invites comments.  I would imagine it would also cover owners of websites that automatically show feeds from other sites.

On the other hand, “primary publishers” are authors or editors.  Interestingly an editor is defined as having “responsibility…for the decision to publish”.  This does raise one interesting question….if you are moderator and you approve a post which turns out to be libellous, it would appear that you may be classed as a primary publisher rather than a facilitator.  Hmm.

Other good points are that it appears that reports on scientific conferences will be protected (providing that they are “fair and accurate”) and the introduction of a “single publication” rule.  This means is that regardless of reprints or republications, the date of first publication is used for actions which can only happen once.  From an IT perspective, this means that ten year-old material downloaded today cannot create a fresh action (which is currently the case, apparently).

There’s some more comment courtesy of The Guardian newspaper, here and here.  And by the way, I’m not a lawyer.