I’ve always thought that the UK’s libel laws were elitist, highly harmful to free speech, and a danger to technical innovation. Jonathan’s post once again demonstrates why they are badly in need of reform.
Those who didn’t see the false child abuse accusations against Lord Alistair McAlpine on an ill-considered BBC documentary may have instead heard about them through social media. This week, London’s Metropolitan Police suggested they might file charges against those Twitter users who sullied the reputation of the retired Conservative politician by knowingly repeating the lie that he was a child abuser. But the police may be less fearsome to the average BBC-linking tweeter than Lord McAlpine himself.
His attorneys say they have identified 1,000 original libellous tweets and 9,000 more retweets. Under the UK’s plaintiff-friendly libel law, the conventional wisdom holds that even a simple retweet which simply echoes others’ content could be actionable, whether or not the user thought it to be false. In addition to a £185,000 settlement with the BBC, Lord McAlpine’s lawyers are inviting implicated tweeters with fewer than 500 followers to make a donation to charity, and those with more followers to agree to bespoke settlements. Such invitations are declined at one’s peril — at least for those who live in the UK or any other place with an agreement to enforce UK civil judgments.
Such a broad-based attack on individuals is unwise and uncalled for, even as the injury that inspires it is mortifying. The problem is that what appears to be a trivial, momentary action — retweeting something of interest — can now create or magnify a falsehood as powerfully as if it had aired on national television. If a television station can be held responsible for what it broadcasts, why not the individuals whose collective megaphone rivals that of the BBC?
The answer is that television stations can and should have fact checking and legal departments as part of the cost of responsible business. Individuals cannot be held to a similar practice, and a series of uneven threats that stills the speech of only the most lawyer-sensitive will unduly undermine the huge value of a service such as Twitter. There may be call to go after the most egregious malicious actors — those who intentionally seek to sow untrue and damaging information about a specific person — but the very identification of 10,000 uncoordinated tweets and retweets suggests something other than bad faith by all. Traditional media can remain vibrant precisely by upholding a higher standard and helping social media to sift truth from falsehood.
Nor would charging Twitter itself with the broadcaster or newspaper editor’s policing function help. Trying to force Twitter to prescreen material would likely result in the service simply refusing to display any tweets to users located in the UK.
Jonathan’s book: “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it”