Should Libel Laws Apply To the Web?

London is the capital of many things--England, financial services. And slapping people with libel lawsuits. Plaintiffs from around the globe--or "libel tourists"--flock to Britain to take advantage of its pro-litigant libel laws that make suing for defamation nearly a guaranteed win. But now those laws--first laid out hundreds of years ago to protect the reputations of "respectable" English gentlemen--are on a collision course with 21st-century technology. With the proliferation of blogs and other social-networking Web sites that enable everyone to voice their opinions, a fight is brewing over online freedom of speech in Britain, with profound implications for the Internet's international free exchange of ideas.

At issue is whether the Web, particularly with the rise of Facebook and Twitter, should be legally regarded as a space where people engage in conversation (like a virtual version of the local pub), rather than merely being made up of pages of published words. The latter definition would leave a host of online applications open to charges of libel in Britain. Several important cases are currently heading to the courts. For instance, British blogger David Osler is being sued by a London activist for a comment another person allegedly made about her on Osler's blog.

To protect Internet speech, campaigners for libel reform want comments on blogs and other online services to be granted a legal exemption. However, although British Justice Secretary Jack Straw has promised to overhaul the defamation law in the next Parliament, reform advocates say his proposals ignore just how much those laws have been at odds with the explosive growth of the Internet over the past decade and a half. Indeed, the online availability in Britain of nearly any newspaper published anywhere in the world has sparked an uptick in the kind of libel tourism that allows non-British litigants to sue foreign news organizations in London. In fact, last year the risk of incurring costly damages and legal fees prompted several major U.S. newspapers to consider withdrawing their print and online editions from Britain, much as the National Enquirer did after it was forced to make a hefty libel payout in 2007. As long as the law lags behind the Internet's evolution, expect more foreign blogs and other Web sites outside Britain to begin to follow suit.