As childcare author Gina Ford drops her defamation suit against parenting website Mumsnet as part of a settlement reached by the two parties this week, Mumsnet has launched a campaign for a thorough review of UK libel law to make it fit for purpose in the internet age.
In a statement on the site, Mumsnet cofounder Justine Roberts writes: "Put crudely, the current legal situation is the rough equivalent of trying to use a set of railway signals to control the air traffic over Heathrow – the principles may be fine but different forms of communication, just like different forms of transport, require a different approach."
As long ago as 2002, she notes, the Law Commission recognised the problem of applying the current libel laws to internet publishers, especially chat forums. Currently, the law sees no difference between a bulletin board and a newspaper.
And thanks to a precedent set in the Godfrey v. Demon case in 2000, which set out the now familiar "notice and takedown" rules, ISPs are deemed responsible for any defamatory material they have been made aware of, and not moved "swiftly" to take down.
But Roberts says this has terrible consequences for free speech, something that should be being protected under the European Convention of Human Rights. Because many sites are small operations, often run on good will, or as a hobby, the result is that anything claimed as defamatory is likely to be taken down, rather than settled in court.
Roberts wants clarification and a greater respect for the right to free speech. She says the Mumsnet team has written to the Department of Constitutional Affairs to urge a review to clarify and update libel laws.
How swift is "swift", she asks? When does a site's liability for its content cease? And how should a court consider allegations of defamation: is a single defamatory post still likely to make a person think ill of someone if the rest of the thread is full of people defending the person who is being defamed?
Roberts continues: "Faced with any complaint about a bulletin board posting, website publishers, frequently small businesses or individuals with limited resources, find themselves with little choice but to remove the posting, with obvious consequences for freedom of speech.
"We accept that individuals have a right to protect their reputations. However, this right always has to be balanced against the rights of others to freedom of expression. At present we believe that this balance is not struck in the right place."
Ford had demanded closure of the site as a whole, after a string of comments criticising her childcare methods were posted on the site's forums. While the lawyers argued, Mumsnet barred all discussion of Ford and her controversial approach to child rearing from its forums. Now that a settlement has been reached, this ban has been lifted.
The battling parties issued a joint statement yesterday: "Mumsnet is pleased to announce that the site has reached a settlement of the long-running dispute with Gina Ford, and that Gina Ford has agreed not to pursue legal action against mumsnet.com or their ISP... Mumsnet apologises to Gina Ford for the comments made about her by some mumsnet users, and has made a contribution to Gina Ford's legal costs." ®