Internet free speech threatened by data protection laws

Landmark test of data protection laws as site is forced to hand over names and IP addresses of bulletin board contributors

Civil liberties advocates warn Tuesday the decision to force a Web site to reveal the identity of bulletin board contributors could stifle Internet free speech in Britain.

In a landmark test of how data protection laws apply to the Internet, financial information Web site International Interactive Investor was forced to hand over the names and IP addresses of contributors to its bulletin boards Sunday after receiving a court order obtained by Scoot.com. Scoot alleges the bulletin boards contained defamatory material.

The 1998 Data Protection Act, which came into effect in Britain on April 1, makes it possible for courts to issue a disclosure order forcing companies to produce users' identities if there is the possibility of taking legal action against them.

Supporters of Internet freedom, however, believe this may have serious implications for Internet discussion forums in Britain.

"Anonymity favours free speech and the Internet provides a forum for informed discussion," says Yaman Akdenis, director of British Internet freedom watchdog Cyber Rights & Cyber Liberties.

"I'm in favour of anonymity because you can say things that otherwise you wouldn't be able to." Akdenis is worried that companies could misuse the laws to gag individuals from writing anything critical of them.

Malcom Hutty, head of civil liberties outfitCampaign Against Censorship of the Internet describes the case as a blow for online freedom. "If people are publishing in the belief of anonymity, then to break that is extremely worrying," says Hutty. "The answer really is that authors ought to be aware that their details may be yielded under certain circumstances."

Scoot.com is not taking legal action against International Interactive Investor for the postings and has not said whether those posting in the forum will be taken to court.

Discussion forums are one of the most popular features of financial information Web sites such as International Interactive Investor. According to head of legal affairs at Interactive Investor Anil Raval there is difficult balance to be struck between privacy and the law.

"Interactive Investor complies with the data protection act and respects the privacy of registered users," he says.

The government's Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill looks set for a bumpy ride thorough the House of Lords. Good. Give it hell says Tony Westbrook. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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