| LONDON, June 12
LONDON, June 12 Website operators may soon be
forced under planned new British laws to reveal the identity of
those who post defamatory comments on their forums, a move that
aims to protect victims by speeding up what is often a lengthy
and expensive legal process.
Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said the proposed approach
would give greater protection to operators who complied with the
procedure, ahead of Tuesday's second reading in Parliament of
the Defamation Bill.
"As the law stands, individuals can be the subject of
scurrilous rumour and allegation on the web with little
meaningful remedy against the person responsible," said Clarke
in a statement.
"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
Both members of the public and companies have made angry
threats to take legal action against Internet 'trolls', who
circulate false rumours about them online.
Last month, London-listed oil explorer Gulf Keystone became
the latest in a string of firms to say it would not tolerate
what it said were attempts to damage its reputation and share
However, litigation is currently difficult and expensive in
Britain, in part because victims often need to achieve a court
order to force the website owner to hand over subscriber contact
Known as a 'Norwich Pharmacal order', named for a 1973
judgment which found that the Norwich Pharmacal Company was
entitled to be told the identity of those whose illegal activity
was hurting its business, the move has been used in Britain
against Facebook and Wikipedia in recent years.
Under the new proposals, website operators would act as
intermediaries, trying to resolve the dispute between author and
If attempts at resolution failed, they would be required to
hand over the subscriber's contact details so the complainant
could pursue legal action against the author. The website itself
would be protected against any action as long as it complied
with these rules.
The government's Defamation Bill aims to make the process of
suing for defamation less expensive and more accessible, while
providing for free speech.
British defamation laws are considered to be among the
world's toughest, with the burden of proof on the defendant, but
the cost of taking action favours the wealthy.
The proposed bill is passing through parliament at the same
time as the ongoing Leveson inquiry looks into media ethics. The
enquiry was prompted by a phone hacking scandal that has shaken
the establishment and questioned the power of the press and the
nature of its relationship with politicians and the police.
(Editing by Steve Addison)