Identities of Internet “Saloon-Bar Moaners” Protected

UK judge rules on “messages which are barely defamatory or little more than abusive or likely to be understood as jokes”

For bloggers in the UK, there are a number of issues concerning legal liability for comments left by readers. If a comment contains material that may be libellous, does the blogger have a responsibility to remove it, even before a complaint has been made? If so, within what timescale? What happens if a comment appears while a blogger is away on holiday – or perhaps is posted to an old blog which he or she no longer maintains? What if a blog gets so many comments that constant monitoring is impossible? And does removing a comment even help anyway, since publication for just a few seconds is still publication? Nobody really knows the answer, which is why libel law reform is such an urgent priority (in the meantime, Oliver Kamm notes the existence of a company which offers a third-party location at which comments can be hosted).

Another question is whether bloggers should comply if they receive a demand for information that might reveal a poster’s identity. A recent court ruling offers some guidance on this. Out-Law News reports:

The High Court has protected the identities of seven individuals who made comments on a football website’s message board. Comments that are “strictly defamatory” can still be so trivial that they do not warrant an invasion of the authors’ privacy rights.

[Judge Richard] Parkes said it was relevant “to consider whether the words complained of were, even if strictly defamatory, more than a trivial attack which would not be taken seriously.”

“I do not think it would be right to make an order for the disclosure of the identities of users who have posted messages which are barely defamatory or little more than abusive or likely to be understood as jokes,” he wrote. “That, it seems to me, would be disproportionate and unjustifiably intrusive.”

…Two [comments] were deemed “no more than saloon-bar moanings about the way in which the club is managed”. Another two “add to the mix a smidgeon of personal abuse of a kind which I would have thought most unlikely to be taken seriously.”

…Stefan Paciorek, a partner with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said that the operator of this site did the right thing in letting the court decide whether he should reveal the names of these people or not.

Some other comments were deemed by the judge to be more serious, and so he has ordered that their authors’ details be disclosed. Interestingly, however, the claimants have not gone after the site’s operator himself, and according to the Resigster they have been obliged to pay him £9,000 to cover the costs of compliance. This is in contrast to the recent Mumsnet case, where the website owners agreed to pay childcare expert Gina Ford a five-figure sum over defamatory postings, including one that was obviously an absurd joke. This was an out-of-court settlement; the London Times noted that

Mumsnet had hoped to go to court, believing it to be a test case over freedom of speech on the internet, but felt it could not afford to risk losing.

In two other recent cases, claimants have gone on the offensive against website hosts rather than authors as a strategy to get websites pulled without having to face their critics in court. This is why Russian billionaire Alisher Uzmanov’s lawyers threatened Fasthosts rather than Craig Murray and Tim Ireland; it also appears to be why the Society of Homeopaths have targeted Netcetera rather than Dr Andy Lewis of Quackometer.

Judge Parkes’ judgement can be seen in full here.