Online libel law: are new British rules the way to go?

June 12, 2012

Online libel law: are new British rules the way to go?The United Kingdom is considering changes to the way websites respond to complaints about defamation in user-posted content. The changes are designed to make life easier both for website operators and genuine victims of defamation.

As in most countries, the UK has struggled to adapt libel laws of newspapers to the online world. There’s a general principle that internet service providers are protected against libel claims on the sites they host as long as they remove offending content as soon as they receive a complaint.

However, the law has remained unclear when it comes to sites allowing users to post content, an issue that’s become more important with the boom of social networking. The situation has been made more confusing by a quirk in the law: whereas publishing a defamatory comment in a newspaper read by millions of people counts as a single incident, a website operator can be hit with a separate count for each time a person views the offending page.

As the BBC explains, the result is that sites could face hundreds or even thousands of claims for a single posting, meaning most social networks play it safe and delete content without going through the hassle of checking if a complain is legitimate.

A proposed new defamation law will mean website operators will have to hand over the IP addresses of people alleged to have posted defamatory material, subject to a check that the allegation is potentially valid. (For example, personal comments and even offensive attacks may not qualify as defamatory.) This requirement will apply for one year after the content is first posted.

Sites handing over details in this way will be exempt from data protection laws, which currently mean they can’t supply IP addresses without a court order. Once a site provides the IP address, it will be protected against any claim of libel over the content. The person making the complaint will then instead be able to take legal action directly against the writer. In theory at least, the site will be able to keep the content online until a court rules it is indeed defamatory.

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