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UK Libel Law Is a Global Threat To Web Free Speech 363

Posted by Soulskill
from the careful-what-you-tweet dept.
uctpjac writes "London media lawyer Emily MacManus argues that UK libel law has three features which make it the 'defamation tourism' capital of the world and a serious threat to Web free speech. First, there is no free speech presumption in the UK as there is, for example, in the US. Second, every access of a Web page is considered to be a separate act of publication in the UK (unlike the US, where 'original publication' holds). Third, 'no-win-no-fee' libel litigation is now allowed in the UK. If any blog, anywhere, publishes something you'd like taken down, threaten libel action in the UK: no one except the super-rich can afford to even take these cases to court, so media lawyers advise publishers to 'take it down, take it down quickly, take it down again.' There's not much chance that the judges will move the law any time soon because they just aren't seeing the cases that could cause them to set new precedent."
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UK Libel Law Is a Global Threat To Web Free Speech

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  • implications (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TheSHAD0W (258774) on Sunday March 29, 2009 @10:00AM (#27379079) Homepage

    Sooooo, what does this mean to a citizen of another country (say the United States) who has no assets in GB? Are they able to reach out and touch you?

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Sooooo, what does this mean to a citizen of another country (say the United States) who has no assets in GB? Are they able to reach out and touch you?

      Probably not.

      Well, in the USA, there legislation in progress to explicitly prohibit US courts from assisting UK libel verdict enforcement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libel_tourism#Proposed_Federal_legislation [wikipedia.org]

      These laws were prompted by rich Saudis linked to terrorism financing suing in UK courts for libel.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Yvanhoe (564877)
      US Senator : "Look what they did in UK! It works perfectly, they are at the forefront of cyber-security, we should imitate them !"

      Fighting for freedom of speech must be done before it is threathened in your own country.
  • by qbzzt (11136) on Sunday March 29, 2009 @10:05AM (#27379129)

    I'm not a British citizen. I have no assets in the UK anybody could seize.

    Why should I care if you sue me in a UK court? You could get a court order entitling you to a million pound. How would you collect? Ask me to send you a cheque from the US?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by kohaku (797652)
      Believe it or not, some slashdotters actually live in the UK!
      • by qbzzt (11136) on Sunday March 29, 2009 @10:14AM (#27379221)

        Believe it or not, some slashdotters actually live in the UK!

        Yes, and it's bad they live under such rules. I hope they'll be able to use the democratic process to change them, or the immigration process to make them inapplicable to them.

        But my point is that it is not a global threat to Web free speech as the article said. Of course, UK law can hurt UK residents, just as US law can hurt US residents. That's part of the cost of living in a country, and the reason I switched.

        • by webmaestro (323340) on Sunday March 29, 2009 @01:00PM (#27380491) Journal

          UK judgments, and really those from any country, can be enforced against US citizens, even those that have never been to that country and have no assets anywhere other than in the US. Now a US court will require that the party trying to enforce the foreign judgment demonstrate that you had sufficient contacts with the foreign state to warrant personal jurisdiction, but directing speech to people in that country may be enough to enable the other party to enforce that judgment in the US. Its not just "oh, I don't live in the UK and have never been there, so I can't be sued there." Nothing is further from the truth. That is why is is a global threat to free speech.

      • Yes, and we expect to be bound by the laws of our country. We're still trying to work out why other people think that they are. Do the UK's truth in advertising laws also apply worldwide? If so, a lot of people in the USA corporations should start hiring more lawyers...

        If someone files suit in the UK against you for libel and you don't show up, what happens? The court finds you guilty in absentia and... what? Tells you to stop or they will shout stop again?

    • by DikSeaCup (767041)
      Perhaps it's time to configure apache on my website to deny uk referrers and blacklist all uk addresses.

      Bah, not like it gets a lot of traffic anyway ...
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by g.a.dyke (1518393)

      (repeat from below)

      Within the EU, this is relatively straightforward. The Brussels Regime provides a framework for one member state to enforce the judgement of the Courts in another member state.

      Within the US, there is also (in most cases) a mechanism for the enforcement of a foreign (i.e. UK) monetary judgements, but this isn't automatic by any means and is dependent on state law.

      It should be noted that, in both cases, such judgements won't be honoured if the appeal process is still ongoing.

      The Brussels Co

    • Why should I care if you sue me in a UK court? You could get a court order entitling you to a million pound. How would you collect? Ask me to send you a cheque from the US?

      True, but just don't ever travel to Europe. Chances are you'll transfer at Heathrow...

  • Jurisdiction? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by darkmeridian (119044) <william...chuang@@@gmail...com> on Sunday March 29, 2009 @10:09AM (#27379177) Homepage

    I am pretty sure a UK libel judgement against foreign citizens and servers cannot be enforced. A UK judgement cannot be enforced against servers located in the United States. That would be an abrogation of the rights of the United States to be the sole police of its citizenry. Imagine a world where foreign judgements are enforceable: courts in Nigeria would be issuing summons to Bill Gates for millions of dollars!

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by jonbryce (703250)

      English court judgements, and that is what it would be, can be enforced easily in England and Wales. They can in most cases be enforced in Scotland and Northern Ireland with a bit more difficulty, and similarly across the rest of the EU.

      • by fnj (64210)

        How? Details please. Civil cases specifically.

        • by jonbryce (703250)

          You go to the Sheriff court in Scotland for example and apply for an order to enforce the judgement you got in England. Then all the enforcement mechanisms in Scotland such as seizing assets and selling them at auction, earnings arrestment orders and so on are available to you.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by rpjs (126615)

        IANAL, but I understand that, at the discretion of the local courts, civil judgements obtained in one common law jurisdiction can be enforced in other common law jurisdictions, so English judgements have been enforced in the US, Australia etc and vice versa, usually involving cases where someone has been judged to owe money in one jurisdiction and has been traced to another.

        However, because of the issue of libel tourism from the UK, US states have recently begun to specifically exclude the enforcement of En

    • by nomadic (141991)
      A UK judgement cannot be enforced against servers located in the United States.

      Yes, it can. However, you will need to get a US court with proper jurisdiction to enforce the order, and US courts won't do that if there is a constitutional defense available (like free speech).
  • by SuperBanana (662181) on Sunday March 29, 2009 @10:15AM (#27379227)

    *thinks back to all the times UK posters have bitched and moaned about "rights", not visiting the US, etc*

    Always found it amusing in the first place given they've gone completely fucking bonkers with speed cameras, CCTV, "anti social behavior" laws, and of course the UK has much of the same anti-terror bullshit. Meanwhile, Cambridge (mass) just rejected cameras that were going to be installed by Homeland Insecurity over privacy issues. The backlash is gaining; in the UK, it never started.

    Our politicians seem to be trying desperately to go the way of England with taxes, but the decision to split from England ~230 years ago appears to have been an excellent one nonetheless.

  • by g.a.dyke (1518393) on Sunday March 29, 2009 @10:25AM (#27379289)

    I have no idea what the submitter is referring to when he claims that the UK lacks a right to free speech. The article itself makes no such claim, although it does go on to raise other issues that are less easy to argue with.

    As a result of the Human Rights Act 1998, any body acting in a public manner, not just in a vertical (governmental) relationship as in the US Bill of Rights, is required to act in accordance with ECHR articles. Article 10 guarantees a right to freedom of expression, limited only in accordance with law, and only where such laws are found to be necessary for a functioning democratic society. As another commenter points out above, neither this, nor the US's first amendment, are apt to shield defamers from litigation.

    On another note, I don't appreciate the UK being referred to as a whole in this matter, we in Scotland have a distinct legal system and this is more relevant in regard to defamation than in almost any other area.

    If you take issue with our defamation law, that's something you need to raise with the EU, where most of our modern development in this regard, especially electronic correspondence, comes from. However, it's irresponsible and misleading to imply that we lack basic respect for a right to free speech.

    I_A_AL, he clearly isn't.

  • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Sunday March 29, 2009 @10:28AM (#27379321)
    Not so long ago Marina Hyde wrote an article in the Guardian suggesting that Elton John was perhaps less than a 100% altruistic do-gooder. He sued for libel. The case was dismissed by a judge who denied leave to appeal. John tried to appeal. The Appeal Court gave his lawyers, basically, a week to think of an argument why they should be permitted to do so. They have walked away from it, and the Guardian is now promoting Hyde's book attacking all aspects of celebrity culture, which is being published shortly. The case establishes a precedent and raises the bar for libel trials.

    Judges and Appeal judges are starting to get it. In the mean time, make sure you post your opinions of bankers and politicians through a suitable proxy onto US servers.

  • 'Claim by the Queensland President of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) against Whozadog.com, seeking the source of a posting claimed to be defamatory [wikileaks.org]'

    'We are the lawyers for Mr ******* [slashdot.org] who has been the victim of three highly defamatory anonymous postings which you have allowed on your website .. ****** ******* .. demands sexual favours from female .. staff & from .. operatives that are after a boost in their political career'
  • What is worrying is that many ISPs and webhosts around the world may start to block UK IPs from accessing material on sites they host on their servers to avoid UK legal action (if it can't be accessed from the UK then how can it be prosecuted under UK law, right?).

    This could be the great UK firewall the government has been fighting hard for, but so far failing to achieve. Except that this would be imposed by everyone OUTSIDE of the UK, leaving us all isolated and we'd have no way to fight it.

  • Doesn't exist most places does it?

    Remember, when the UN comes in and gets its way of the 'lowest common denominator' ( using the WTO as its persuasion tactic ), your countries sovereignty wont mean much.

  • by identity0 (77976) on Sunday March 29, 2009 @10:54AM (#27379511) Journal
    I only did a quick scan of the article, but it sounds like the author is blaming only some recent developments in UK law, but not the underlying system of UK law.

    The basic thing that's wrong with UK libel law is that the burden of proof is on the defendant. The defendant must prove that the published article isn't libelous, whereas in the US the prosecution must prove that the article is libelous. In the UK the defamatory article is assumed to be wrong unless the defendant proves it true, whereas in the US the article is assumed to be true unless the prosecution proves it false. And then the US prosecutor would have to prove that it was maliciously false, that the defendant knew it to be false. Welcome to Soviet Britain, where defendant is guilty until proven innocent!

    UK law in libel was designed to protect the powerful against 'false' accusations in the press, where US law was designed to protect the press in publishing accusations. See John Peter Zenger [wikipedia.org]
  • by thetoadwarrior (1268702) on Sunday March 29, 2009 @11:47AM (#27379923) Homepage
    if the UK newspaper industry is any example then it's quite easy to publish bullshit.

    The Daily Mail does it quite often and I don't see them getting into trouble.
  • There's not much chance that the judges will move the law any time soon because they just aren't seeing the cases that could cause them to set new precedent.

    Or more likely because judges don't have authority to "move the law" -- that's the legilature's responsibility, not the judiciary's.

  • So why do tabloids get away with printing so much bullshit about people for so long? Only a few rich people have managed to successfully sue them recently.

  • by rehabdoll (221029) on Sunday March 29, 2009 @01:37PM (#27380729) Homepage

    - Anything to declare?
    - Yeah, don't go to England

  • I wonder (Score:3, Interesting)

    by stabiesoft (733417) on Sunday March 29, 2009 @04:29PM (#27381927) Homepage

    Before "the web", these sorts of problems did not exist. You would have to publish the item as a book or paper and have it physically distributed via the local system, and thereby be subject to local controls. I suppose in some cases, you could pick up a broadcast via satellite, but by and large a country's physical borders provided information borders. Now with the web, you can email, visit web sites etc around the world fairly unobstructed. Even in china, I think you can get past their firewall in some ways. The question is, will countries, even western countries, snip the wires to try to put the genie back in the bottle? I think you could even find solutions to still allowing email. Why not just "delay" all inter-country connections by 30 minutes. This would make browsing impossibly slow, but email would still work fine. I don't think this is going to happen, but I wonder if the original creators of "the web" had any idea that their information sharing would ruffle so many feathers.

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