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UK Committee Suggests Libel Rules For Websites

 by Steve McCaskill

A parliamentary committee suggests websites should be required to remove anonymous libels

A joint Parliamentary committee has said that websites should have protection from defamation cases if they respond swiftly to allegedly libellous comments from anonymous posters.

It says that websites which identify authors and publish complaints alongside comments should get legal protection.

Hidden identity

The recommendation is part of a wider review into the UK’s defamation laws aimed at promoting free speech and reducing the “unacceptably” high costs of libel cases. Currently, websites are liable for defamatory statements made by their users and if they fail to remove a comment which prompts a complaint, they risk becoming the “primary publisher” of the statement.

The committee proposes a “notice and takedown procedure” whereby complaints are displayed alongside the offending comments and the complainant can then apply for a takedown order at a court, as long as the author is identified. If a website does not comply, then they should be treated as the publisher of the comment.

However anonymous comments should still be immediately removed from the website unless the author volunteers their identity. Conversely, websites can apply for a “leave-up” order if they believe an anonymous comment is on a matter of “significant” public interest.

Anonymity “discourages responsibility”

The committee has criticised anonymous comments saying that although they may “encourage free speech”, they “discourage responsibility” and hopes that such reforms would lead to a general recognition that such posts are unreliable.

However Mumsnet co-founder Justine Roberts told the BBC that many of its users rely on using user names as opposed to their real name as it provides them with the freedom to speak honestly about difficult subjects.

The site currently receives about ten complaints a month, a figure it fears would increase should the committee’s recommendations be enforced.

The Committee has also proposed the introduction of a “single publication rule” which would give potential claimants only one year from the allegedly defamatory material’s date of publication to launch libel action. Currently, this year-long window of opportunity restarts every time an article is downloaded or accessed from the internet.

The report is published amid a backdrop of an ongoing debate about libel laws in the UK. In May, the British High Court issued an injunction to Facebook and Twitter that prevented them from publishing damaging information online and in August, Atos Healthcare, the company responsible for doling out government incapacity benefit, began threatening legal action against websites and forums which aggregated patient’s experiences, accusing them of libel.

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Legal News

Nominet Considers Criminal Domain Takedown Rules

 by Matthew Broersma

Police could request a domain be blocked without a court order, if new proposals are adopted

Nominet, the registrar that handles .uk domains, is moving ahead with proposed rules (PDF) that could allow law enforcement agencies to request a domain be shut down without a court order.

The registrar launched the process in response to a request from the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). Currently Nominet’s rules don’t allow for domains to be shut down for criminal reasons, though in the past it has blocked domains at the request of law enforcement agencies on the pretext that they provided false contact details.

Limited application

Suspension of a domain will not require a court order but should be limited to circumstances where necessary “to prevent serious and immediate consumer harm”, according to Nominet.

The draft proposal would establish a process under which law enforcement agencies would request a domain be blocked in cases where “suspension is proportionate, necessary, and urgent”.

The policy would cover cases in which a site is involved in crimes covered under the Serious Crimes Act 2007, including fraud, prostitution, money laundering, blackmail and copyright infringement.

Nominet would only accept take-down requests from law enforcement bodies with which it has a trusted relationship.

The policy would allow for appeals and would not allow take-down requests related to “disputes between private parties, freedom of expression or political speech, or requests relating to offences where prosecution would require the authorisation of the Attorney General or the Director of Public Prosecutions”, Nominet said.

Nominet’s director of policy, Alex Blowers, said the policy was intended for cases where the delay needed to obtain a court order would allow damage to consumers.

Copyright enforcement

While the policy advisory group has taken input from the Alliance Against IP Theft, Blowers said the policy wasn’t intended for private copyright enforcement.

An advisory group was formed in March, chaired by Dr Ian Walden, a professor of communications law at Queen Mary University of London, and including members from law enforcement, ISPs, domain regsitrars and academia.

The group’s draft recommendations have now been published and Nominet is seeking feedback from stakeholders ahead of a 21 September meeting, where the issue will be discussed before submitting recommendations to the Nominet Board.

If adopted the rules could go into effect by the end of the year, and will be subject to an annual review.