June 12, 2012

Websites May Soon Be Required To Disclose Identities Of Online Bulliers

Britain´s House of Commons is currently reviewing a bill that would give websites such as Facebook and Twitter greater protection from lawsuits if they identify people who have posted defamatory messages on the Internet.

The Defamation Bill proposes to reform libel laws giving websites the incentive to turn in anonymous Internet “trolls.” The measure states that victims have a right to know who is behind these malicious messages without having to go through costly legal processes to do so.

Websites that voluntarily divulge the identification of these malicious trolls would be spared lawsuits for inadvertently displaying offensive user comments. However, the powers behind the proposal will also be balanced by measures to prevent false claims in order to get material, or users, banned.

The bill will also require that claimants prove their reputation has either been or will be damaged before they can move forward with their case, which offers another measure of protection for websites.

The debate comes one day after a man who sent a threatening message to Conservative MP Louise Mensch was banned from contacting several celebrities.

“As the law stands, individuals can be the subject of scurrilous rumor and allegation on the web with little meaningful remedy against the person responsible,” said Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke. “Website operators are in principle liable as publishers for everything that appears on their sites, even though the content is often determined by users. 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 defense against libel as long as they identify the authors of allegedly defamatory material when requested to do so by a complainant,” Clarke added.

Under current law, websites such as Facebook are responsible for what users publish on their sites, leaving them open to possible litigation from victims of harassing content from other users.

However, one privacy organization said there is 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,” Emma Draper, head of communications at Privacy International, told BBC News.

“However, 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,” she explained.

The moves come just days after a woman won a landmark High Court ruling to discover the identities of Facebook “trolls” who tormented her.

Nicola Brookes was sent death threats after she had posted a supportive comment on the Facebook page of former X Factor contestant Frankie Cocozza. And one person, or persons, had set up a fake page in her name which was used to send inappropriate messages to children.

Brookes was unable to convince police to investigate, but won a legal order forcing Facebook to divulge the identities of the attackers, including their names, emails and computer IP addresses, allowing them to be traced.

Her lawyers are now considering bringing lawsuits against the four individuals believed to have started the abuse.