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Proposed UK Online Libel Rules Would Restrict Anonymous Posting 219

judgecorp writes "A Parliamentary Committee in the UK has suggested that sites should be protected against libel claims against contributors — as long as those contributors are identified. Anonymous postings should be taken down if someone complains of libel in them, in a set of proposals which online community groups have described as 'chilling.'"
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Proposed UK Online Libel Rules Would Restrict Anonymous Posting

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  • by caitsith01 ( 606117 ) on Friday October 21, 2011 @01:43AM (#37787912) Journal

    It's important to understand that in the UK (and Australia... and Canada... and many other places) there are much, much stronger legal principles surrounding defamation than you are used to in the US. The idea is that you are free to say anything - but not free to cause harm to others without compensating them. So if you publish something which alleges that a particular individual is a child molester (and they aren't), they are entitled to come after you to recover in dollars the harm you have caused to their reputation.

    There are scenarios in which both the US and common law systems seem perverse. In the common law world, defamation often becomes the tool of the rich and powerful to silence criticism or discussion about them. A country like Singapore demonstrates what happens when common law defamation is abused to the fullest extent. But in the US, people at times appear to have liberty to destroy reputations without consequence under the guise of "free" speech.

    So to consider this, you have to start from the proposition that if someone publishes something which is defamatory of someone else, that person has a prima facie right to sue and recover damages. Another principle of common law defamation is that anyone involved in the publication process, or republication, is potentially liable along with the person making the defamatory statement. Including, for example, the operator of a website.

    Right now, without any reform, it is already the case in many common law countries that a person who has been defamed on-line may pursue the website operator for disclosure of information about the original poster of the defamatory publication. In the context of anonymous publications, it already makes sense for the website to collect as much info as they can get away with about their users in order to protect them in this scenario. Where I live (Australia) this happens almost by default - anonymous posting is rare, and most sites make at least a token attempt to get your name and email address. I can also guarantee that any Australian website hit with a threat about a defamatory third party comment they are carrying will pull the comment instantly.

    So the real question is, should defamatory anonymous on-line posting be regarded as similar to defamatory graffiti on a toilet door, where although someone is strictly speaking liable for it, there is general acceptance that to find them would be impossible? Or should it be regarded as something closer to a newspaper or television station which republishes someone's defamatory comments? In that scenario, the newspaper/TV station along with the person who made the comments would all be potentially liable.

    Personally, I favour the "Wild West" view of the net. The almost absolute freedom of speech it provides in a practical sense also results in a corresponding decrease in the credibility accorded to any one posting on-line. Not too many people are dumb enough to read user comments on a website and take them with anything less than a shovel full of salt. However, I suspect our parliamentary and judicial overlords will see it rather differently, and this type of proposal will eventually make it into law...

    End rant... if anyone's still reading.

  • by caitsith01 ( 606117 ) on Friday October 21, 2011 @01:51AM (#37787952) Journal

    The way I see it, there is no way for the UK government to control UK or foreign citizens posting on foreign sites.

    Right now, if I am in France and you are in Venezuela, and you post a highly defamatory article about me on a server in New York, and someone else in the UK reads it... I can sue you in the UK for defamation. The law focuses on the place of publication, which at the moment is treated as the place where the material is accessed and read (arguable I can sue you in multiple places... see here: []). So long as I have some reputation in the UK and you cause harm to that reputation by publishing 'into' that jurisdiction, I can sue you there. This is a huge problem with internet defamation law at the moment.

    There is no reason why the UK government can't make laws in relation to anything accessed from the UK, even if it's stored elsewhere.

  • by TechLA ( 2482532 ) on Friday October 21, 2011 @02:29AM (#37788076)
    As long as you intend to only stay within your country, and as far as your own country doesn't extradite you for it. If you ever want to travel anywhere that has extradition treaty with UK (pretty much everywhere), they can get you. US has a long history of doing that, and afterwise enforcing their own laws to foreign nationals. Even with copyright infringers.
  • by Anonymous Brave Guy ( 457657 ) on Friday October 21, 2011 @01:15PM (#37794940)

    The trouble with this issue is that there is genuine merit on boths of the argument. Anonymous posting does have advantages in some contexts and whistleblowing in the public interest is a time-honoured tradition. On the other hand, I'm a great believer that with freedom comes responsibility, and effective anonymity by definition removes all accountability for someone's actions. As others have amusingly noted [], without any need to act responsibly, a significant number of people won't, which in everyday life spoils things for everyone else.

    I'm not sure whether the proposals here strike exactly the right balance, but it seems to me that neither absolute free speech/total anonymity nor automatic public naming of everyone is a viable way forward.

    The usual argument for the former is something about disproportionate powers to penalise an identifiable critic. In reality, the government/legal system should be protecting those people against unjust retribution in most cases. If the government is itself the target of the criticism and is sufficiently corrupt to try to silence justified criticism through dubious means then you need a lot more than free speech to fix your problem. Consider the events of the past year in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iran.

    The usual argument for the latter is something about taking responsibility, but neglects the important benefits of privacy to free and constructive discussions on difficult subjects, such as those mentioned by the Mumsnet reps in recent BBC coverage of this topic. There is no need to force someone to disclose their identity to the entire world unless they are actually doing something wrong, and there should be due process to discover that just like any other legal action.

    If we accept that a middle ground is necessary to strike as fair a balance as possible between competing but incompatible legitimate positions here, then the big question becomes how to deal with actions that can potentially have an immediate impact and spread rapidly causing irreparable damage, but which may be doing so legitimately, before any court action can reach a useful conclusion. Some sort of safe harbour/temporary hold system seems to be working better than anything we had before in the broadly similar context of copyright infringement, so I don't think that's an absurd place to start.

"An organization dries up if you don't challenge it with growth." -- Mark Shepherd, former President and CEO of Texas Instruments