Guest post: Online content and defamation – the emerging British approach

This post by Angela Daly originally appeared on the MediaLaws.eu site

Earlier this year the British government started to consider new legislation on the topic of defamation, with the publication of a consultation on a draft Defamation Bill in March 2011.[1]

Defamation, both online and offline, has been a controversial area of law in England and Wales. For instance, the presumption is that an allegedly defamatory statement is false, with the burden being on the maker of the statement to prove that it is true; in many other jurisdictions, the onus is on the party which alleges defamation to prove that the statement at hand is false. It is also the norm in England and Wales civil cases for the plaintiff to show that the defendant is liable for the alleged wrong on a balance of probabilities.

Furthermore, the current state of defamation law has given rise to the phenomenon of ‘libel tourism’, in which plaintiffs view England and Wales as an advantageous jurisdiction in which to file cases due to the aforementioned burden of proof on the defendant, especially compared to other jurisdictions such as the (also anglophone) United States which provide defendants with more extensive defences.

The consultation also examines the position of defamation online, and especially liability for defamatory statement by internet intermediaries e.g. Internet Service Providers, user-generated content platform providers etc. The current situation for this latter group is somewhat ambiguous. Section 1 of the existing Defamation Act 1996 contains a defence available to people who are not the author, editor or commercial publisher of a defamatory statement, that ‘secondary publishers’ – such as ISPs – can use, so as not to be liable for defamatory third party content – if they can show that they took reasonable care in relation to its publication and they did not know that their action caused or contributed to the publication of a defamatory statement.

Yet the consultation on the draft bill suggests that this provision may not be sufficiently clear and protective of secondary publishers, given developments on the internet such as the prevalence of user-generated content. Thus far the legal position relating to defamatory content in blogs and discussion forums is not well-established in case-law, according to the consultation. A blog owner, for example, could be viewed as having editorial control over the content of posting and therefore the opportunity to remove any material considered to be potentially defamatory. The consultation solicits responses on the reform of this provision given the new technological environment.

In October 2011, a Parliamentary Joint Committee published a report on the bill, which also commented on the issue of internet publication.[2] The Committee proposes that there should be a new notice and take-down procedure to cover defamation in the online environment. It recognises that the current law in this area in fact encourages internet hosts and service providers ‘to ignore any dubious material but then remove it without question following a complaint’. On the one hand, this can leave defamatory statements online for long periods of time, and on the other, it can also result in entirely legitimate comments being taken down.

Thus the committee’s recommendation to the government is that pressure on hosts and service providers to take down material challenged as defamatory should be reduced (in line with the protection of free speech) and that site owners should be encouraged to moderate content written by its users in a way which balances free expression and the protection of reputation.

Regarding the procedure for taking down material, the committee distinguishes between material which is identifiable in terms of authorship and that which is not. With identifiable material, the committee suggests that once a complaint is received about alleged defamation, the host or service provider should publish a notice of complaint alongside that material, but is not required to remove the offending material – protecting free speech.

The person making the complaint can also apply to a court for a take-down order, if they wish. Regarding unidentified material, the recommendation is that any such material should be taken down by the host or service provider on receiving a complaint, unless the author responds to a request to identify themselves, in which case the procedure for identifiable material should be followed.

If the host or service provider believes that there are significant public interest reasons that justify publishing the unidentified material, it can apply to a judge for an exemption from take-down, and secure a “leave-up” order. If hosts and service providers comply with these rules, then they should not be liable for defamation. The committee believes that this procedure should apply equally to online sites that are moderated and those that are not. The committee also makes its wish known, hoping that ‘over time, people will pay less attention to and take less notice of material which is anonymous’.

In as much as the situation for potentially defamatory online content should be clarified, these developments are welcome. Nevertheless, two criticisms can be made of the approach so far.

Firstly, the maintenance of anonymity seems to be characterised by the Parliamentary Committee’s report as undesirable – beyond the specific situation of defamatory comments made by an anonymous internet user. This perceived undesirability of anonymity could have a chilling effect on free expression online, particularly with the increasing government and corporate surveillance of the medium, not all of which is desirable or even legal.

Secondly, the Parliamentary Committee’s report emphatically makes no distinction between different kinds of online ‘secondary publishers’, especially in terms of the procedure to be followed for dealing with potentially defamatory material. There are many different types of ‘secondary publisher’ on the internet, ranging from large, well-organised corporations (e.g. social networking sites) to small, personal, non-profit operations (e.g. a personal blog), and they may well have different capacities with which to fulfill regulatory obligations. However, this subtlety has been overlooked, or indeed not at all taken into account by the Parliamentary Committee’s report, which characterises these internet content intermediaries as a monolithic block.


[1] http://www.justice.gov.uk/consultations/draft-defamation-bill.htm

[2] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt201012/jtselect/jtdefam/203/20302.htm

Angela Daly is a 3nd year PhD researcher at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, Italy, working on a thesis entitled ‘corporate dominance of the Internet’. She is currently a visiting researcher at the Dipartimento Cesare Beccaria at the Universita degli Studi di Milano, and is also managing the New Media sub-project of the EUI’s MEDIADEM activities.

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