MPs propose web anonymity crackdown


MPs have proposed plans to crack down on defamatory comments posted anonymously on the web.

In a response to the Government's draft Defamation Bill, a Joint Committee report recommended updates to the law to make website owners more active in monitoring comments, whilst protecting them if they act quickly to remove defamatory posts.

It is essential that the ability to post and publish anonymously online is protected and this report does not go far enough to explain how this can be done.

Under what the committee called a "new notice and take-down procedure," if a complaint is made about an anonymous post, it should be removed from the website immediately unless the author promptly identifies themselves after being requested to do so.

"If the internet service provider believes that there are significant reasons of public interest that justify publishing the unidentified materialfor example, if a whistle-blower is the sourceit should have the right to apply to a judge for an exemption from the take-down procedure and secure a "leave-up" order," the report read.

"We do not believe that the host or service provider should be liable for anonymous material provided it has complied with the above requirements."

Complaints about posts from identifiable contributors should be published alongside the relevant material.

What we think...

Anonymity is a huge problem for the internet. Whilst one could argue that attacking anonymity is a threat to freedom of speech, it is hard to argue against the point that freedom of speech should only be permitted for those who are willing to be identified.

If the information being posted is genuinely of worth to the general public, however, then it would be right in certain cases to permit that anonymity.

It is a tricky question for the web's regulators to answer. It will be difficult to find an outcome that upsets as few people as possible.

Tom Brewster, Senior Staff Writer

If sued for defamation because of that post and they have not published the complaint, website owners "can only rely on the standard defences available to a primary publisher."

Complainants would also be able to apply for a court order to have the post taken down. In that case, the post's author would be contacted as well and they would be able to make their arguments for why the comment should remain or be deleted.

The committee said identifying anonymous users by seeking a court order against the host or ISP would not be quick, cheap or guarantee a successful outcome.

"Specifically we expect, and wish to promote, a cultural shift towards a general recognition that unidentified postings are not to be treated as true, reliable or trustworthy," the Joint Committee report read.

"The desired outcome to be achieved - albeit not immediately - should be that they are ignored or not regarded as credible unless the author is willing to justify or defend what they have written by disclosing his or her identity."

Words of warning

Some have warned that the proposals would threaten the positive aspects of web anonymity.

"It is essential that the ability to post and publish anonymously online is protected and this report does not go far enough to explain how this can be done," Nick Pickles, director of the Big Brother Watch, told IT Pro.

"If people are posting defamatory material, publishers have a duty to remove that content. What is essential is that any take down process must follow due process and ensure that the law cannot be abused by larger parties to censor uncomfortable content - as is often the case under existing law."

Tom Brewster

Tom Brewster is currently an associate editor at Forbes and an award-winning journalist who covers cyber security, surveillance, and privacy. Starting his career at ITPro as a staff writer and working up to a senior staff writer role, Tom has been covering the tech industry for more than ten years and is considered one of the leading journalists in his specialism.

He is a proud alum of the University of Sheffield where he secured an undergraduate degree in English Literature before undertaking a certification from General Assembly in web development.