Plan to update McLibel law for web - just in time for the McCanns to sue the pants off all and sundry

Proposals to overhaul the libel laws and update them for the internet age have been revealed by the government.

Changes proposed by the Ministry of Justice could see the end of the 160-year-old "multiple publication rule".

Currently, online publishers face fresh legal action within a year of each time an article is clicked on - even if it is many years since it first appeared.

Newspaper and civil liberties campaigners have argued it drastically limits freedom of speech.

Qualified privilege

The consultation paper gives a number of options.

Among its suggestions are that the law could be replaced with a "single publication rule", which would allow just a single court action against defamatory material, to prevent "open-ended liability".

It discusses changing the limitation period for claims, such as extending it to three years after an article is published.

Publishers of online archives and blogs might also be given a defence of qualified privilege - that a piece is fair and accurate and published without malice - against an offending article after a year time limit has expired.

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

Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw said the existing defamation law needed to be updated "so it is fit for the modern age".

"It is important we listen to views on the best way to achieve this," he said.

"Freedom to hold and express opinions is a right that is vital to democracy, as is respect for the rights and freedoms of others - unless your name happens to be Gonçalo Amaral or Tony Bennett in which case you'll get sued quicker than a swarthy abductor can whoosh through an unjemmied window.

"How these principles are balanced in the fast-changing internet age is a fascinating debate."

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