Wrong end of stick grabbed, shaken vigorously

5:47 pm - December 19th 2008

by Padraig Reidy    

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Mike Smithson over at Political Betting has “just received some information that could have major consequences for bloggers”.

Apparently, the entire adjournment debate on Tuesday concerning libel (I assume this is what he’s talking about) was about ZaNuLiarbore (or whatever it is this week) finding “a way of dealing with government irritants such as Guido and to a lesser extent Iain Dale.”

Sorry Iain and Guido, but you didn’t come up. Denis MacShane did, yes, float the idea of registration on sites as a means of cutting down on anonymous slanderous comments (slander, not libel, being the legal status of defamatory comments), but qualified this suggestion heavily with “except where for good reason, as in a newspaper letters column, a name and address is withheld.” The whole notion was pretty much dropped when Evan Harris pointed out the ease of setting up a pseudonymous identity on the web.

Smithson seems gravely worried about the idea of a “libel small claims court”, though he doesn’t quite seem to know why. The fact of a libel small claims court would not, in and of itself, affect any judgement on whether content was defamatory or not. What it would do is limit the cost of both bringing and defending a libel claim: essentially putting bloggers on safer ground than the current system, where they could easily find themselves either spending their lives’ savings on lengthy legal battles against individuals who can far easier afford it, or being forced in to humiliating apologies (incidentally, the Justice Minister didn’t seem keen on this, saying a small claims court may not be an appropriate place for “complex” libel cases).

The majority of the debate concerning defamation and the internet was around the idea of imposing a statute of limitation, and limits on libel tourism.

It was in this context, in response to issues that have concerned bloggers for a while now, that Bridget Prentice said a consultation paper would be published next year. I’m not one for political predictions, but I can’t imagine any green paper emerging next year with the sole aim of making life harder for Paul Staines et al.

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About the author
Padraig Reidy is an occasional contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is news editor of Index on Censorship and former deputy editor of New Humanist. His work has also featured in the Guardian, the Independent, Tribune, the Irish Examiner and the Irish Post.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Debates ,Westminster

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Reader comments

Thanks Padraig, that pretty much covers it. I posted a brief “don’t panic” on my site while you composed this as some people that should know better were bandwaggoning, I’ll edit in a link to this as well:

Bloody hell, and I thought the tabloid press was bad at times…

I think that you are missing two substantive points, regardless of the fact that such legislation is unlikely to be aimed at one or two meagre bloggers.

1. The proposed legislation would require comment moderation for all blogs, many of which flourish on the basis of near instantaneous response. Bloggers should not be liable for comments made unless they meet the following criteria:

– The comments are slanderous.

– The blogger has been given reasonable notice to remove the comments.

-The blogger has refused to do so.

Going beyond this would be an unreasonable restriction on freedom of speech.

2. Many bloggers are touchy as hell about any changes to the system because charming groups such as the EU keep proposing laws that would, in the wrong hands, (and who is to say which those are), result in it being a crime to write articles that the legislators disagreed with.

That the the first problem is with the currently debated legislation and the second with legislation that is, for the moment, in abeyance, is no reason not to fight tooth and nail against the silencing of independent voices.

Um, Falco?

The proposed legislation would require comment moderation for all blogs

What proposed legislation? There is no proposed legislation. This is the very first stage of a consultation for reform to the libel law that we have been campaigning for.

Bloggers are currently in very serious trouble if someone with money makes a suit against their hosts, domain registrars or similar. The Govt has promised to start a consultation process. The anti-censorship campaigning organisations have been pushing for this for some time, as have a number of bloggers (especially those that have been in trouble with the farcicle laws as they stand).

So I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but this consultation isn’t going to require anything, it’s only just started.

Currently, without pre-moderation, all three of your points below stand under law as is. If you pre moderate, they don’t, as you’re personally publishing them.

In your point 2, you observe that many bloggers are paranoid, especially about the EU. That’s true. Doesn’t mean their paranoia is in any way justified.

As you think there is proposed legislation, then you have no understanding of the legislative process and haven’t read what’s been said. Padraig, the author of this post, knows exactly what he’s talking about, his organisation is one of the primary anti-censorship campaigns in the country.

Climb down, get involved with the consultation, and don’t try to block something that we need.

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  1. Mat Bowles

    wishes people would factcheck before panic posting. http://tinyurl.com/4xvt2t

  2. DonaldS

    Is http://tinyurl.com/3tbo5n the most ill-informed post on libel vs blogs ever written? Quick, pass the antidote: http://tinyurl.com/9t3l9p

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