New procedures for unmasking online trolls will make life simpler for those operating the websites where the trolling is taking place, justice secretary Ken Clarke has said.
Ahead of the new Defamation Bill's second reading on Tuesday, Clarke said the current libel regime — built for the pre-internet era — created so much uncertainty for website operators that they tended to take down potentially risky material too quickly. At the same time, he argued, victims of trolling rarely see justice.
"As the law stands, individuals can be the subject of scurrilous rumour and allegation on the web with little meaningful remedy against the person responsible," Clarke said in a statement. "Website operators are in principle liable as publishers for everything that appears on their sites, even though the content is often determined by users. But most operators are not in a position to know whether the material posted is defamatory or not and very often faced with a complaint they will immediately remove material."
Clarke explained that the bill would "give greater protection to operators of websites who comply with a procedure to identify the authors of allegedly defamatory material", by ensuring their indemnity from defamation suits.
"The government wants a libel regime for the internet that makes it possible for people to protect their reputations effectively but also ensures that information online can't be easily censored by casual threats of litigation against website operators," Clarke said. "It will be very important to ensure that these measures do not inadvertently expose genuine whistleblowers, and we are committed to getting the detail right to minimise this risk."
The issue of trolling has had a high profile recently, due to the criminal harassment cases of Nicola Brookes and the Tory MP Louise Mensch. However, neither of those cases involved defamation law, which is a civil matter.
Brookes was granted a high court order last week ordering Facebook to disclose the identities of users who were trolling her on the social network — Facebook needed the order, as to give up the names without it would have been breaking data protection law. She will apparently now use the names to bring about a private lawsuit.
Mensch, meanwhile, had been sent an obscene email from a man called Frank Zimmerman, who threatened to kill her children — again, a criminal harassment case. Zimmerman was given a suspended sentence and restraining order on Monday.