Forums face crackdown after Motley Fool ruling

Don't expect to remain anonymous when posting to Web boards, say legal experts

UK Web sites could be expected to hand over the identity of anonymous notice board posters following a landmark ruling in the UK involving ISP Totalise and the Motley Fool trading site.

In the court ruling, Motley Fool was denied the privilege granted to print publications to protect sources and asked to disclose the identity of a message board user accused of posting defamatory remarks concerning Totalise.

Under UK law, a publication can protect its sources unless disclosure is in the interest of justice, national security or the prevention of crime. Mr Justice Robert Owen concluded that the Motley Fool could not claim the same protection because it does exercise editorial control over or take responsibility for postings.

Donald Ramsbottom, a lawyer specialising in the information technology, says this ruling is likely to set a precedent. "The line is drawn and in the future they will refer to this case," he said.

Ramsbottom believes that confidence in anonymity online is being whittled away by a such court rulings.

"Basically it's saying that you can put something up anonymously, but if it gets to court, they can force disclosure. It certainly erodes people's perceptions [of online anonymity] even if it is just extending the law."

Internet free speech advocates have voiced concerns that, while there may be a need to stop libellous content appearing on the Internet, the right to speak without fear of reprisal is equally important. "Its a question of balance," said Malcom Hutty, director of the Campaign Against Censorship of the Internet in Britain. "A decision like this can be taken to mean that anonymity is not right and that is too broad. A court needs to consider carefully the implications of its decisions and consider peoples rights under the Human Rights Act."

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Act, introduced by the Council of Europe late last year, establishes privacy as a fundamental right that governments must protect.

Another Internet law specialist, Celia Nortcliff, a partner with law firm Marcus J O'Leary agrees that this ruling is the logical extension of the existing law and says that Web companies operating message boards will need to crack down on users.

"It seems to be absolutely fair," she said. "It you put up a discussion board, you need to have terms of agreement with those people entitled to post. You have to have a warning not to post libellous content and you have to monitor the boards."

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