user generated content and uk libel law (discussion paper)

As some readers will know, in addition to working full-time I’ve also been working on a part-time law degree ("PgDip CPE Law") at the University of Hertfordshire for the past two years and I’m presently one equity and trusts exam away from completing that.

For my independent legal study I wrote a paper on internet libel. I was going to hold this back for a while so that I could make it more internet friendly (put the links in the text, break it into chunks, etc) but because of the mumsnet story, I reckon now is a good time to post it.

The paper doesn’t constitute legal advice and anyone seeking actionable legal advice on defamation or anything else would be well advised to visit the Law Society website which provides lists of qualified legal professionals.

The paper, which I’ve called "User Generated Content Online and UK Libel Law: a discussion of issues"  is meant only as that – the starting point for a discussion of the case law, available defenses and implications of UK libel law upon online discussions. It includes definitions of libel, an explanation of current online community practise and explores libel case law in the UK and elsewhere. It’s 4000 words and covers a lot of material so is quite general and, as any legal scholar will notice, there are some gaps here.

The preamble of the paper explains that:

The websites of news and media organisations are increasingly embracing user generated content – text messages, comments, discussions, reviews, images and videos submitted by members of their audiences. UGC can bring audiences closer to the news by providing first hand accounts from "citizen journalists" –  ordinary members of the public who have decided to share their experience.

Despite the benefits, websites publishing this content also make themselves open to a number of risks, including liability for publishing defamatory material.

The same is true, of course, of any website where members of the public are able to post comments and participate in discussions – message board based communities like mumsnet, currently in the news, as well as social networking websites, chat rooms, email lists, corporate blogs and even, yes, personal blogs. Anyone with a website offering comment or discussion functionality would be wise to learn as much as they can about libel law. This paper addresses the following issues specifically:

  • What is the current state of liability for website owners in England and Wales who publish libellous content created and submitted by members of the public?
  • How is this liability likely to be affected where the owners of a website are physically based in England and/or Wales but where sections of the audience, readers and contributors, are located in a different jurisdiction?
  • Based on existing case law, might it be prudent for UK based internet publishers with a foreign audience to be aware of and protect themselves from possible violations of libel laws in foreign jurisdictions?
  • What procedures, if any, can websites publishing user generated content put in place to limit their liability for libellous material submitted by users?

User Generated Content Online and UK Libel Law: a discussion of issues is available for download as a MS Word .doc or as a .rtf (rich text format).

Any opinions found in the paper are my own and not those of my employer. Those opinions should not be taken as fact or be viewed as legal advice. This paper is for discussion purposes only.


  1. Robin – have you cloned yourself? How do you find time to hold down a job, be a partner and father, do a part time degree and blog as extensively as you do?! Or do you just not sleep?

  2. You’ve hit the nail on the head – it’s sleep that falls out of the equation! I also save time by not spell checking ;-)
    I’d be interested to hear comments on the discussion paper. I’m not sure I’ve got it all right and could use some feedback to iron out various bits, add some relavent case law, etc.

  3. Robin
    My stepdaughter has been receiving defamatory texts from a former boyfriend, and he has threatened to send similar texts to her current boyfriend, and post similar messages on “Facebook”
    Simple question: Under UK law if he does so could the texts and/or the Facebook posts be considered libellous and if so could we pursue a legal case?
    Your advice would be much appreciated.
    Kind regards
    Dave McKeag

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