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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

On stupid libel laws

It was only a matter of time before Britain’s ridiculous libel laws led to an internet service provider shutting down a bunch of websites in the face of a writ.

But the ISP hosting Bloggerheads and Craig Murray‘s blog, which appears to have shut down one of their servers following a writ from Uzbek millionaire Alisher Usmanov, have been a bit dumb on this one.

Because rather than point out that doing them for libel for hosting a website is much akin to suing the company that produces the paper a newspaper is printed on rather than the newspaper itself, they’ve scrapped not just the two sites accused of the libel, but a bunch of innocent bystanders – including the decidedly high-profile Tory Boris Johnson.

Which strikes me as a breach of contract on the ISP’s part, which should open them up to being sued by those whose websites have been affected – in the case of Boris, potentially for large amounts of money due to the potential damage the loss of service could do to his campaign.

But ignoring that, depending on how long his website’s down (and whether any data has been lost in the process), this odd bit of fall-out from Usmanov’s legal threats could have a serious impact on the Boris campaign to become mayor of London. Were such a writ to be issued during a general election, the results could be major.

So, come on elected representatives – you may be able to say whatever you like about whomever you like from the floor of the Commons chamber, but surely now that Boris has been hit you can see the stupidity of a libel system that can have such results?

At the very least, isn’t it about time – a good two decades after the web began to come into use – that we determined who is legally responsible for online libels? Otherwise anyone with any money will be able to shut down freedom of expression merely through a few well-placed threats. Anyone with any sense would think it fair for Usmanov to sue Tim Ireland and Craig Murray if they have indeed libelled him (though considering their lack of money, you’d have to think it a bit pointless and silly) – but why should their web hosts be at risk for something that they had nothing to do with?

(The current Private Eye has another ridiculous libel case, revolving around the litigation-happy Saudi billionaire Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, who has just forced Cambridge University Press to pulp a book with a supposed libel, and who has previously taken French writers to court in Britain over an alleged libel in an American edition of a book when as few as 23 copies were sold in the UK via Amazon.com… Because, utterly insanely, that’s currently considered enough to bring it within the jurisdiction of the British courts.)

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