Free speech, Mumsnet, and Gina Ford

British childcare author Gina Ford, who advocates a strict routine during childcare in her Contented Baby books accepted what the Times Online reports to be a five figure settlement from Mumsnet to settle a libel claim over comments on the Mumsnet bulletin board.

About 30 comments out of the 10,000 or so comments received weekly on the Mumsnet parenting bulletin board were objected to as libelous by Gina Ford. When Ford initially raised her complaints, Mumsnet removed the comments and told its users not to talk about her in any way. Now that the case has been settled out of court, Mumsnet has told its users that Gina Ford can once again be a topic of discussion – if the discussion is civil and fair. Comments deemed otherwise will be removed.

For a time, it looked as if the ISP hosting Mumsnet would be targeted legally and be required to shut down the entire site. In an article titled The Law Flounders in the Digital Age, the London based Telegraph pointed out some of the flaws in current British law:

The current law could only say that an internet service provider (ISP) would be regarded as a secondary publisher, like a library, bookshop or magazine wholesaler.

It could only have a defence if it could show it exercised reasonable care and did not know that its actions caused or contributed to a publication or had acted expeditiously to take down material once notified.

This is not very clear guidance in an age when providers host chatrooms awash with heated debate. Add the sheer volume of comments and the logistical problems of the “notice and take down” practice to the issue of the purpose of a chatroom being to facilitate free debate and it is obvious that there are pressing issues for the law. . . . While Mumsnet and Gina Ford chose to keep their debate out of the courts, perhaps it would have been helpful for the law if they had fought it out.

Mumsnet itself called for legal clarification after the case was settled out of court. It published an article called Mumsnet calls for a change in the libel law on its own site.

A very high profile incident in the US over comments on a blogging site recently dissolved into a similar unresolved legal limbo. I would hope that legal precedents regarding free speech vs. libel in the social media world of the 21st Century soon begin to catch up with the reality of the Internet world.

Cross posted at BlogHer.

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