Defamation and the ‘net

The UK Ministry of Justice is trying to update the law on defamation to encompass online sites as well as the printed word. Specificially, the government is trying to make sense of the multiple publication rule.

The law on defamation allows someone to make a claim each time a libel is published. However the internet now allows content to be updated, cached, linked, archived and, some might argue, republished every time a web page is requested. So should each publication of defamatory material still justify a separate claim (‘multiple publication’ rule) or should only one claim be allowed (‘single publication’ rule) – and how might that work?

Currently, a defamation claim has to be made within a year of publication. But the internet now allows content to be accessed immediately and for many years into the future. So does this time limit need to be changed and how might that work?

Corporate reputation and litigation specialists may desire to have the multiple publication rule rolled out online as a way to deter defamation through crushing financial penalties in a similar way to record companies approach to piracy in the US. If this was the case, it would be cheaper to get a contract killing done than have a heated argument online with defamatory comments exchanged.

With the multiple publication rule, how would that be counted? Page views aren’t any real use and how would you measure content that may be vended by AJAX which wouldn’t constitute a separate page view? Government questions around this issue, together with background materials can be found here. Contract killers, potential litigants, lawyers, communications experts and other potential interested parties have until December 16, 2009 to respond to the consultation questions.