Websites soon will be required to identify individuals who have posted defamatory messages, according to the BBC. New government proposals report that victims have the right to know who is behind malicious statements, without having to deal with costly legal proceedings.
The powers will be balanced within government by measures to preclude false claims that are just meant to get material removed. But advocates of privacy object because this might enable websites to divulge user details in a wider range of cases where it might not be necessary or appropriate to do so.
This past week, a British woman won a high court order compelling Facebook to identify users who had harassed her. Nicola Brookes falsely had been branded a drug dealer and paedophine by Facebook users – known as “trolls.”
The social network, which did not contest the court order, now will disclose the IP addresses of individuals who had libeled her so that she may proceed with prosecution.
These new powers, which will be appended to the Defamation Bill, will cut through much of the time-consuming and expensive red tape involved in this process, according to the government. The advantage to websites would be that consenting to these requests will avail greater protection from being sued, should there be defamation claims.
The new stipulations would apply to all websites – regardless where they are hosted – but claimants will need to be able to show that the UK was the correct venue for bringing the action.
At present, in legal terms, every website visit – or “hit” – on a defamatory article could be counted as a separate offence. Consequently, many websites remove articles immediately when a defamation claim is made – regardless whether the claim is right or wrong.
“Website operators are in principle liable as publishers for everything that appears on their sites, even though the content is often determined by users,” Ken Clarke, British Secretary of State for Justice, told the BBC. “But most operators are not in a position to know whether the material posted is defamatory or not and very often – faced with a complaint – they will immediately remove material.
“Our proposed approach will mean that website operators have a defence against libel as long as they identify the authors of allegedly defamatory material when requested to do so by a complainant.”
Clark said these new rules would spell an end to “scurrilous romour and allegation” being said online without fear or risk of tangible punishment.
“The government wants a libel regime for the internet that makes it possible for people to protect their reputations effectively but also ensures that information online can’t be easily censored by casual threats of litigation against website operators.
“It will be very important to ensure that these measures do not inadvertently expose genuine whistleblowers, and we are committed to getting the detail right to mimimise this risk.”
Privacy International, a watchdog that internationally campaigns about privacy issues, posits a concern that “gun-shy website operators will start automatically divulging user details the moment someone alleges defamation in order to shield themselves from libel actions.”
“A great deal of the content posted by internet trolls is not actually defamatory, instead constituting harassment, invasion of privacy or simply unpleasant but lawfully expressed opinion,” said Privacy International Head of Communications Emma Draper.
“However,” Draper continued, “if the choice is between protecting users’ anonymity and avoiding a potentially costly lawsuit, many small operators are not going to be overly concerned about whether or not a user has genuinely defamed the complainant.”