Twitter Libel Laws must be Changed

Did you know that at present you can be sued, simply for retweeting someone on Twitter or sharing their post on Facebook? Did you know there are now lawyers specialising in doing just that? Lawyers who will trawl the internet looking for any content which is arguably defamatory and then issue legal threats?

At present, you could innocuously retweet a blog post, and if someone feels it contains a single defamatory line, you can be held responsible, even though you never wrote the blog yourself. Even though you may have missed the line entirely, or just had no way of knowing it was defamatory. At present, you can be held responsible for anything you share, even a newspaper article, meaning you are not safe to share without fact checking every element first. Utterly ridiculous.

It gets worse. Celebrities are now apparently using libel as a tactic to silence their critics. They can hire a social media lawyer on a No Win, No Fee basis and take out liability insurance on the off-chance they might lose. The next step is simple: issue legal threats to everyone who has shared the content you disapprove of. Your lawyer can issue an ultimatum: pay us XXX amount of money or risk going to court and losing everything you have.

Libel cases can last well over a year and the legal bills can come to hundreds of thousands of pounds. Unlike the celebrities who are suing on a No Win, No Fee basis, you as the defendant have to raise every penny yourself. If you can't afford to defend the case, you lose by default and any assets you own can go to the other side to compensate them and cover their costs. 

If like me, you have nothing to your name and live on a council estate, the case will dropped due to your lack of means, but if you own something of value, you are in trouble. You might have done nothing wrong. The content you shared might not even be libellous. It doesn't matter. You are now destitute.

Just think of the enormous implications for freedom of speech, freedom to share information, even freedom of thought. The content you wish to share might have enormous public interest, but you currently take a huge risk, just by letting people know. 
Imagine Jimmy Saville were still alive and you wanted to share the details of his unproven crimes. Saville could potentially issue legal threats and stop you in your tracks. 
Our libel laws are designed to protect the powerful and they are among the most regressive in the world. But obviously not every libel lawyer is acting in such a vexatious manner. Sometimes lawyers are arguably correct in pursuing a case, but this leads to the next problem: in law there is the principle the punishment should fit the crime.

Let's say someone wrongly called me a racist or bully and I wanted to sue (not that I would). I may be perfectly justified in doing so, but do the other side deserve to lose their home and car? I would not want to put them through that, when a retraction and apology would suffice. Even if they refused to retract and apologise, I don't feel they should be out of pocket by more than a few hundred quid. 
I get libelled on Twitter almost every day and I wouldn't dream of suing because I have integrity, and I recognise my detractors can make careless comments without being bad people. We all occasionally speak in anger.
My take on social media libel is as follows: No Share or Retweet should ever be considered libellous. Only the original author should be responsible for their words. A retweet to me is no different from handing a newspaper to someone and then being accused of defamation. It's simply not reasonable.

There should be recognition in law that a regular person is not a huge corporation or newspaper with deep pockets. There should be a cap on what an individual is forced to pay out, both in compensation and legal fees. Let's say you make the maximum figure £10,000. That's still a huge amount of money, but it would stop vexatious litigation in its tracks and end disproportionate punishment.

It's worth pointing out vexatious litigation is currently illegal, it's just that if you are a victim, it's almost impossible to defend yourself without very deep pockets or generous friends. This is not justice and it's not democratic. As a result, I've started a petition to change UK libel laws which you can sign here.

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