UK Committee Suggests Libel Rules For Websites

A parliamentary committee suggests websites should be required to remove anonymous libels

A joint Parliamentary committee has said that websites should have protection from defamation cases if they respond swiftly to allegedly libellous comments from anonymous posters.

It says that websites which identify authors and publish complaints alongside comments should get legal protection.

Hidden identity

The recommendation is part of a wider review into the UK’s defamation laws aimed at promoting free speech and reducing the “unacceptably” high costs of libel cases. Currently, websites are liable for defamatory statements made by their users and if they fail to remove a comment which prompts a complaint, they risk becoming the “primary publisher” of the statement.

The committee proposes a “notice and takedown procedure” whereby complaints are displayed alongside the offending comments and the complainant can then apply for a takedown order at a court, as long as the author is identified. If a website does not comply, then they should be treated as the publisher of the comment.

However anonymous comments should still be immediately removed from the website unless the author volunteers their identity. Conversely, websites can apply for a “leave-up” order if they believe an anonymous comment is on a matter of “significant” public interest.

Anonymity “discourages responsibility”

The committee has criticised anonymous comments saying that although they may “encourage free speech”, they “discourage responsibility” and hopes that such reforms would lead to a general recognition that such posts are unreliable.

However Mumsnet co-founder Justine Roberts told the BBC that many of its users rely on using user names as opposed to their real name as it provides them with the freedom to speak honestly about difficult subjects.

The site currently receives about ten complaints a month, a figure it fears would increase should the committee’s recommendations be enforced.

The Committee has also proposed the introduction of a “single publication rule” which would give potential claimants only one year from the allegedly defamatory material’s date of publication to launch libel action. Currently this year-long window of opportunity restarts every time an article is downloaded or accessed from the internet.

The report is published amid a backdrop of an ongoing debate about libel laws in the UK. In May, the British High Court issued an injunction to Facebook and Twitter that prevented them from publishing damaging information online and in August, Atos Healthcare, the company responsible for doling out government incapacity benefit, began threatening legal action against websites and forums which aggregated patient’s experiences, accusing them of libel.