Did UK Gov't Already Effectively Outlaw Anonymity Online With Its New Defamation Law?

from the that's-a-problem dept

We just recently wrote about a report by the UK House of Lords that recommends ending anonymity online by requiring that any web services collect real names and information at signup, while then allowing users to use a pseudonym. The thinking, then, is that if there is a criminal act or other violation of the law, it's easier to track down who's responsible. As we noted, there are all sorts of problems with this kind of logic, including both massive chilling effects against free speech, and the simple fact that it's not nearly as hard as some technologically clueless people believe to track down online users, even if they're "anonymous." Either way, this proposal is a big problem, and EFF spoke out against the plan.

However, as Eric Goldman alerts us, it might already be too late in the UK. That's because of a little-noticed provision in the defamation law that was passed in the UK last year. As we've discussed for years, the UK has had terribly draconian defamation laws, that more or less put the burden on the accused to prove what they said wasn't defamation. This was incredibly plaintiff friendly and antagonistic to free speech. The situation was so bad that a whole campaign was mounted to finally update the UK's defamation laws, resulting in a big change that went into effect last year. Many of the new provisions of the Defamation Act 2013 were steps in the right direction, but Goldman noted one very problematic section concerning intermediary liability for defamation claims.

The law first sets up a problematic notice-and-takedown system, not unlike what we have in the US for copyright via the DMCA. As we've seen, such laws are widely abused, and Goldman expects the similar provisions of the UK defamation law will likely be abused. But, then it goes even further: if websites want to avoid liability, they have to help identify the users accused of defamation:
However, what’s really interesting about Section 5 is its bonus requirement for UGC websites to avoid defamation liability: they qualify for the act’s protection only if the defamation victim can find the user to sue him/her. The act doesn’t explicitly say what information about its users the website operator must give a defamation victim or when (and some of these requirements will be spelled out in regulations that are being developed), but to me the implication seems clear: if the website operator can’t provide authenticated identifying information about its users, the website operator will lose the act’s protection (unauthenticated information is useless to plaintiffs if falsified).
And with that, the incentives are clearly set up so that if you're a UK site, you pretty much have to do what the House of Lords is now suggesting should be required by law: obtain real name and contact info of users, if only to avoid liability from defamation lawsuits. The law has been in effect for about a year now, and it's unclear if many UK-based websites are aware of this provision, or even if it's been used. But, of course, it only takes one high-profile lawsuit to convince nearly every site that they need to start doing this as well.
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Filed Under: anonymity, defamation, notice and takedown, real names, safe harbors, uk


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Aug 2014 @ 1:16pm

    Technically possible

    Article wrote:

    'and the simple fact that it's not nearly as hard as some technologically clueless people believe to track down online users, even if they're "anonymous."'

    Sorry, but what is the simple fact?

    An IP address is not a person, and it's easy to switch IP address and sanitize one's computer making forensic work very time consuming and expensive.

    I thought that the lesson of the copyright troll cases was that proving who did something online is very expensive and only possible under limited circumstances.

    if the same proof is required as in a civil copyright case, proving who posted a defamatory comment is virtually impossible unless someone confesses or historical evidence is discovered.

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