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Libel laws could be updated for internet age

New plans to update libel laws for the internet age have been revealed.

Currently, online publishers face the threat of a new legal action each time a potentially defamatory article is downloaded – even if years have passed since it was first published.

But possible changes to the law could see the abolition of the multiple publication rule, which dates back 160 years and allows for a new libel claim with every download made within 12 months of first publication.

That could be replaced with a single publication rule, allowing only one court action against defamatory material, Media Lawyer reports.

The move would be aimed at preventing “open ended liability”.

A consultation paper published by the Ministry of Justice also suggests increasing the limitation period of claims to three years after discovery of the article.

Publishers of online archives and blogs might also be given a defence of qualified privilege against offending article after the year time limit had expired.

They would face action only if they refused to publish a correction on the offending web page.

The existing rules came out of a 1849 case involving the Duke of Brunswick, who sent his servant to obtain a 17-year-old copy of the Weekly Standard.

Despite the limitation period having expired, the court ruled that the article and the libel had effectively been published again.

Media lawyers say the effect of the rule has been to make London the libel capital of the world with litigants claiming here against publications based all over the world on the basis of web-based literature.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw said: “Existing defamation law needs to be updated so it is fit for the modern age, and it is important we listen to views on the best way to achieve this.”