Radical online libel shake-up revealed

Proposals for radical changes to libel laws aimed at updating them for the internet age were published today.

Online publishers currently face the prospect of fresh legal action every time an article is downloaded, even if many years have passed since it first appeared.

Newspapers and civil liberties campaigners complain the effect is to drastically limit freedom of speech.

Changes to the law could involve the abolishing of the 160-year-old “multiple publication rule”, which allows for a new libel claim with every click, providing it is made within a year.

That could be replaced with a “single publication rule”, allowing only one court action against defamatory material, to prevent “open ended liability”.

A consultation paper published by the Ministry of Justice also suggests increasing the limitation period of claims to three years after discovery of the article.

Publishers of online archives and blogs might also be given a defence of qualified privilege against offending article after the year time limit had expired.

They would face action only if they refused to publish a correction on the offending web page.

The existing rules came out of a 1849 case involving the Duke of Brunswick, who sent his servant to obtain a 17-year-old copy of the Weekly Standard from the newspaper offices.

Despite the limitation period having expired, the court ruled that the article and the libel had effectively been published again.

Media lawyers say the effect of the rule has been to make London the “libel capital of the world” with litigants claiming here against publications based all over the world on the basis of web-based literature.

Mark Stephens, head of media at Finers Stephens Innocent, said “jurisdiction hopping” to take advantage of libel laws here was commonplace.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw said: “Existing defamation law needs to be updated so it is fit for the modern age, and it is important we listen to views on the best way to achieve this.

“Freedom to hold and express opinions is a right that is vital to democracy, as is respect for the rights and freedoms of others. How these principles are balanced in the fast-changing internet age is a fascinating debate.”

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