New bill to unmask online bullies
Victims of anonymous online abuse could soon be given new powers to identify internet attackers who post offensive or threatening messages. Under the government’s suggested Defamation Bill, victims of “trolls” and online bullies would be given the ability and the right to learn the identity of their tormentors and see an end to the abuse suffered.
The government’s announcement follows a number of recently publicised cases concerning online bullying, including a number of figures in the public eye such as Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington and Conservative MP Louise Mensch. It also comes just days after a landmark High Court ruling in which social network user Nicola Brookes won the right to know the identity of her Facebook tormentors.
Under the new regulations, those affected would be able to take action without having to go to the High Court, a move that would make it both quicker and cheaper for victims to track down their tormentors. However, claimants will have to show the real or potential damage to their reputations before any defamation case can be taken forward.
The government is also calling for more details about individual internet users and their online activities to be stored. Many view this as potentially infringing on people’s rights to privacy and adversely affecting internet business. The government has brushed off criticisms of restricted internet freedoms by including measures that are designed to stop false claims that result in the unjustified removal of comments.
Additionally, a single-publication rule would be introduced to protect websites, imposing a one-year limit on posted material. Under this, only the original post would be counted as “published” even if subsequently reposted and would only be open to prosecution for twelve months. Currently, material is regarded as being republished every time it is downloaded, leaving the operator of the archive at unlimited risk of being sued. Under new rules, cooperating websites would not be prosecuted for their role in internet bullying.
Justice Secretary Ken Clark emphasised this. “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,” he said. “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.”