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Fair dealing?

Maxwellian abuse of the defamation laws?

Lawyers acting for Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek businessman of allegedly doubtful repute, have persuaded Tim Ireland's and Craig Murray's webhosting service to take down their sites. This, over allegations about Mr. Usmanov which are allegedly defamatory. Idiotically, the webhost has managed, at the same time, to take down other sites on the same server, including those of Bob Piper and Boris Johnson.

Defamation law needs updating to protect ISP's and webhosting services. This does not need parliamentary intervention. It just needs some sensible decisions (by judges who know how to plug in a computer) to set reasonable precedents.

At present, there is a genuine risk that a web-hosting service or even ISP might be ordered to pay damages for "publishing" defamatory comments over which, by the nature of their businesses, only the most antedilivian judge could imagine they had meaningful control. That is what makes their lawyers so cautious (going on panic-stricken in this case, by the sound of it). They should not be at risk. They should be seen as mere instruments of publication, no more to blame than suppliers of the cables and routers which make up the physical infrastructure of the internet.

If the law were clarified to that extent, this problem would be solved. The lawyers of rich bullies who abuse libel laws to suppress free speech could then take the matter up with individual bloggers, who are of course fully responsible for what they say.

In the interests of illustrating to the courts how ludicrous would be the approach this webhost's lawyers fear, bloggers are everywhere directing their readers to the allegedly offending remarks, which are freely available from cached pages. Some of the ire directed at the hapless web-host is misplaced (although their clumsiness is taking down unrelated sites is a bit pathetic). The issues for freedom of speech, however, are very real.

Britain's libel laws are outcrops of medieval codes of honour and now often have perverse effects. Robert Maxwell abused them mightily to suppress adverse comments about his business methods. As a libertarian, I would abolish them entirely. It would do people good to have to evaluate critically what they read in the papers, saw on the TV or gleaned from the blogs. Libel laws tend to lend spurious credibility to half-truth, rather than to promote truth.

I don't know Mr Usmanov. I don't know whether the allegations against him are true. His use of Maxwellian methods, frankly, is all I will ever need to know about him.

h/t to virtually every respected citizen of the UK blogosphere. Mr Eugenides has a roll of honour.

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