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UK defamation law reform for web trolls

  • June 13th, 2012

This BBC report summarises steps that could protect web freedom of speech.

The UK government proposes to give victims of defamatory statements (false claims of fact):

" a right to know who is behind malicious messages without the need for costly legal battles. The powers will be balanced by measures to prevent false claims in order to get material removed."

I've argued for a long time that abuse of freedom leads to politicians promising cures that are worse than the disease. Whether that is the outcome here will depend on the fine print. I'd prefer that the courts work it out as they go, and reform themselves at the same time so that cost and delay did not mean that rights are a false promise to everyone but the truly rich. That seems unlkely there, or here.

The proposals are sure to be opposed by people who mistake freedom for licence to lie about others with impunity.  I'd rather wait to see that fine print. It could be part of   revitalising defamation law's role in protecting against  lies, and to forestall politicians and regulators getting power to censor and punish speech they don't like.

The key will be the mechanisms that guard against ID demands being used just to squelch unwelcome opinion, and not lies of the kind that defamation law protects. As Privacy International says:

"A great deal of the content posted by internet trolls is not actually defamatory, instead constituting harassment, invasion of privacy or simply unpleasant but lawfully-expressed opinion".

An answer could give trolls rights too. They could make it potentially costly for complainants who demand ID without good reason,  after the process has decided whether the words were defamatory. Complainants could have to post a security bond for the reasonable costs of those they unmask, plus a premium for abusing the right, if the words are found not to be derfamatory, (or the complainant does not take the matter to conclusion).

That would be the equivalent of ny recomended cure for gagging writs.

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