UK – ‘Defamation Bill’ means more control of free speech!

The Defamation Bill is another in a recent line of legislation designed to limit free speech in the UK, and has come under severe criticism from human rights watchdogs.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has criticised reforms to libel laws which encourage the self-censorship of material posted on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

If the bill were to be passed into law, and statement made by a person which “has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation” to any person or organisation will be considered as defamatory. In other words, ANY criticism of any organisation or person, or any opinion which cannot be substantiated as fact could lead to a claim against the person making the statement.

twitter-censorship-300x300Web service operators would be required to make it easier to identify people making such statements, and facilitate contact between the person writing the alleged defamatory material and the subject. If contact cannot be established, then the web service operator would be obliged to remover the content. If web service operators comply with these requirements, they would be immune from defamation claims. In other words, anonymous posting of information would become impossible.

The outline of the Bill was proposed by Ken Clarke (also responsible for secret court legislation) in June of this year, and was specifically aimed at content posted on the internet.

In a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Mr Francis, a Labour MP, commented: “We are also glad to see steps taken to protect website operators who are merely hosting content, but, as drafted, the bill could have a chilling effect on those publishing material online.”

The committee’s report explained: “We think there is a real risk that website operators will be forced to arbitrate on whether something is defamatory or lawful, and will too readily make decisions on commercial grounds to remove allegedly defamatory material rather than engage with the process.”

freespeechforpolice1We are very concerned about the rash of legislation that is being considered, both in the UK and internationally, that aims to control information available in the public arena.

In the UK, we have the Defamation Bill, and the Communications Data Bill (which has also been severely criticised), which have been proposed within a very short time of each other. The purpose of both is to restrict communication through both direct legislation, and the fear of being monitored (just in case someone says something wrong).

This is legislation for the wealthy. The cost of engaging in legal action is (and will continue to be) far beyond the resources of the average person, resulting in large organisations stamping on any criticism that may be made of them.

People should have the right to protect themselves from defamation – but perhaps the first stage is to be open and honest about their side of the argument before they go running off to the courts like spoiled children



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