Babycare expert Gina Ford is threatening to sue UK parenting site Mumsnet and its ISP after allegedly defamatory comments were posted about her on the site. The postings have been removed, but Ford's lawyers are demanding that Mumsnet's ISP take the whole site offline.
Ford is no stranger to controversy - it is fair to say she is loved and loathed in equal measure for her rigorous and disciplinarian approach to childcare. But she has now stirred up a debate over freedom of speech online not seen since the infamous case of Godfrey vs. Demon Internet.
Ford's legal action has sparked fresh calls from internet service providers for the UK government to develop formal procedures governing the removal of illegal material from websites.
Mumsnet, describing the situation as "surreal", has now moved to ban all further discussion of the ex-maternity nurse to prevent further postings appearing, and says it has complied with all Ford's requests, save the one demanding that the site pay her legal fees (You can read its statement here).
In a letter to Mumsnet's ISP, Ford's lawyers set out her complaint. Three postings are mentioned. One "bore the defamatory meaning that our client has unpleasant and unhygienic personal habits"; one "bore the defamatory meaning that our client is cruel, uncaring, and justifiably reviled" and "says our client 'straps babies to rockets and fires them into south Lebanon'."
All three have been removed, and DSC, Mumsnet's ISP, says it is confident it has done its duty under the "notice and takedown" rules set out in the judgment in Godfrey v. Demon. It argues that the author's insistence that the site be taken offline is "wholly disproportionate".
DSC managing director David Adams told us that Ford's lawyers, Foot Ansteys, have threatened further legal action against his company unless he removes the site, and have advised him to take legal advice.
"We do know about Demon - Godfrey," he told us. "And we are willing to address specific concerns...We think we've responded in a timely manner to every request, and removing the entire site is unnecessary."
Under current UK law, clarified in the Demon case, ISPs cannot be held accountable for illegal material they host until they are made aware of its presence, when they must take it down.
In the case of child pornography, it is easy enough to determine if material is legal or not. But this is much harder in the greyer world of defamation and libel. And nothing in the Godfrey ruling explained how ISPs are to verify the legal status of an offending post.
A spokesman for the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) said this leaves ISPs stuck in a Catch 22 situation. "There are potentially legal consequences for ISPs if they do remove material," he told us. "It could contravene the poster's human rights, for instance, if it isn't actually defamatory."
The spokesman called for an impartial body to make judgments about the legal status of contested material, and said that ISPA would welcome new legislation following a review of the law in this area back in 2002.
In the case of Ford vs. Mumsnet, however, he says the author should let it lie. "Mumsnet has removed the offending posts, and that should be the end of it."
David Adams also calls for a change in the law. "At the moment there is no upside for an ISP defending action like this. We want to do right by our clients, but equally, we don't want to go out of business. We're a small company, and my livelihood and that of my employees would be threatened by a big legal fight."
He says that for now, DSC is happy to back Mumsnet, but adds: "I don't know how far we can take it."
As well as reviving the much-needed debate over who is responsible for illegal information posted on the net, the Mumsnet legal action is interesting because of who it targets. The net is full of frank discussion about her methods: Amazon.co.uk, for instance, has for a long time hosted negative comments about Ford's methods in the reader reviews of her books. We contacted Amazon to ask if they planned to removed the postings, but had not heard from them at the time of going to press. ®