The long-running scrap between Gina Ford, a parenting expert, and the website Mumsnet has finally come to a close. In brief, a group of people on the Mumsnet messageboards took agains Ford and posted a variety of disobliging comments about her. The comments could be read, apparently, as suggesting Ford has 'unpleasant or unhygienic' personal habits or that she 'straps babies to missiles and fires them into South Lebanon'.
A few thoughts on this:
1 Many users believe the internet is a kind of ungoverned space where the normal laws of libel do not apply. As this case shows, it isn't.
2 Internet companies generally rely on 'notice and takedown' to deal with potentialy defamatory comments on messageboards. In other words, if an aggrieved person complains about a posting, they'll take it down as soon as it is brought to their attention and the matter is considered closed. In fact, there is no real case law that supports this rule. In principle, a company could take down a defamatory comment and still be sued, because people would have read it and the complainant would have suffered damage to his reputation.
3 In any case, notice and takedown is a very weak defence of the principle of free speech since, in practice, I suspect a site will always remove comments that are complained about, even if they are true. This gives crooks a powerful tool with which to suppress even fair comment and investigation.
I predict that before long we will see a rash of cases on internet libel, centering on messageboards, forums and blogs.