Websites To Be Forced To Reveal Cyber-bullies

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The government says victims of cyber-bullying can demand the IP addresses of their tormentors

Cyber-bullies and Internet trolls could be identified without a need for court order, under new government proposals announced this week.

The new addition to the Defamation Bill will make it simpler to obtain IP addresses of the wrongdoers from a website such as Facebook. Previously, the website would have been in breach of data protection laws if it had handed over the details without a court order.

The challenge facing the Government is to make the new rules fair, and prevent them being used in false claims.

An end of an era

Last week, Nicola Brookes, who suffered online abuse after posting a supportive message to an unpopular X Factor contestant, won a court order forcing Facebook to identify users who harassed her.

After the unfortunate post, Brookes had been called a paedophile and a drug dealer. One crafty online bully created a fake profile in her name, which was used to send explicit messages. Her address was published online, and the angry cyber-mob even followed her to a recipe forum she frequented.

Facebook will now reveal the IP addresses of people who had abused Brookes so she can take them to court.

The current laws were written before the Internet existed, and need to be adapted to the digital age. “Website operators are in principle liable as publishers for everything that appears on their sites, even though the content is often determined by users,” Justice Secretary Ken Clarke told the BBC.

At the moment, as far as the law is concerned, every page view of a defamatory article can be counted as a separate offence. This means that many websites would rather take content down as soon as they receive a complaint, rather than investigate it, to avoid complications.

“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,” he added.

Clarke thinks giving victims more powers to prosecute those guilty of “scurrilous rumour and allegation” could mean an end to online abuse. However, a proper process needs to be in place so the new powers don’t get misused.

“It will be very important to ensure that these measures do not inadvertently expose genuine whistleblowers, and we are committed to getting the detail right to minimise this risk,” concluded Clarke.

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