Mumsnet founder calls for clearer online libel laws

The co-founder of a parenting forum has called for online libel laws to be clarified after settling a dispute with parenting guru Gina Ford.

Ford and Mumsnet today reached a settlement in which Ford agreed to drop a threatened libel action against the site and the online forum and apologised for disparaging comments made about her by some of its users last summer and agreed to pay part of her legal costs.

Ford had threatened to seek libel damages from Mumsnet last August after several users of its forums had made potentially libellous allegations about the controversial parenting guru in the site’s discussion forums.

“It would have cost us more to go to court for two years and win than to settle this now,” said Mumsnet co-founder Justine Roberts.

“We’ve made a commercial decision based on that and whether we want to spend two years fighting a High Court case.”

Roberts said it remains unclear how defamation law applies to web sites that include user-generated discussions.

“The de-facto results of the current law — which is a law for print in the digital age — is that if anyone complains about anything, web sites will just pull the posting irrespective of whether it’s legitimate or not, because they simply haven’t got time, money or legal resources to really evaluate it,” she said.

It is widely believed that forum sites only become liable for posters’ comments once they are alerted to their existence. However, this has never been codified through legislation.

Roberts is also calling for broader debate about the law of defamation, which was drafted with one-way media like broadcasting and printing, should apply to conversational media like bulletin boards. In particular, uncertainty about whether individual posters or forum operators are liable for comments needs to be clarified, she said.

She said: “If a single poster makes a defamatory comment but 200 others refute it, shouldn’t the conversation as a whole be taken into consideration?”

Mumsnet has written to the Law Commission asking it to address internet libel issues as part of a consultation on defamation.

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