The sharing of information in the virtual world represents a serious potential threat to individual and business reputations. The speed of information flow is high while audiences can be large and global.
Concerns about online reputations have grown in tandem with the explosion of social media. As a result of that the number of defamation cases brought over comments made in social media has also risen significantly.
The Acceleration of Defamation Claims
According to research by Thomson Reuters, reported defamation cases in the UK have increased 23% over the past year, from 70 to 86. Within those figures, the number of defamation actions related to derogatory posts on social media increased more than 300% in the past year, from 6 in 2012-13 to 26 in 2013-14.
Those numbers reflects not only the large impact that the social media can have on companies’ business activities and peoples’ lives, but also the lack of understanding about the legal consequences that online commentary may have. People are become more aware of this area of law due to defamation actions involving celebrities but the vast majority of social media users still do not know how the law really works.
Despite that, it remains the case that ignorance of the law is no defence.
The Defamation Act 2013
The British Parliament passed the Defamation Act in 2013 which came into force on the 1st of January 2014 and reformed English defamation law. Any legal complaint occurring after the beginning of 2014 must prove actual and probable harm or financial loss, before the case can be brought to court in England or Wales.
This Defamation Act also places responsibility on the individual that created the defamatory material instead of website operators. In doing so, the Defamation Act enhanced the defences available to website operators, where they can prove that it was not the operator who posted the statement on the website and that the offensive material was removed from the website at the first complaint from the claimant.
The new law has made it harder for companies to sue in regards to defamation cases. In many cases companies will need to resort to finding other ways of managing the problem that negative publicity can cause to their businesses. In light of that, it is possible that the number of companies taking action for defamation may gradually decrease.
Striking a Balance Between Freedom of Expression and Protection of Reputation
As with many new legislative provisions, the Defamation Act 2013 had to strike a balance between competing interests in a way that is best suited to the modern environment.
In the Grand Committee of the House of Lords Lord McNally said the he believed, “that the process established by the regulations strikes a fair balance between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation and between the interests of all those involved, and that it will provide a useful and effective means of helping to resolve disputes over online material”.
On the other hand, Lord Lester, a British barrister and politician, in the House of Lords, stated that the new Act damages free speech and represents an offense to the European Human Rights Laws. Further, Northern Ireland will still use the old UK law, refusing to extend "Legislative Consent" to the new Defamation Act. One concern for the legal industry is that Belfast will take London’s place and become the new capital for "libel tourism".
For specialist advice regarding the protection of your individual or business reputation or for defending yourself against defamation claims contact Peter Gourri today by email PGourri@rollingsons.co.uk or telephone 0207 611 4848.