LONDON Website operators may soon be forced under planned new British laws to reveal the identity of those who post defamatory comments on their forums, a move that aims to protect victims by speeding up what is often a lengthy and expensive legal process.
Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said the proposed approach would give greater protection to operators who complied with the procedure, ahead of Tuesday's second reading in Parliament of the Defamation Bill.
"As the law stands, individuals can be the subject of scurrilous rumor and allegation on the web with little meaningful remedy against the person responsible," said Clarke in a statement.
"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."
Both members of the public and companies have made angry threats to take legal action against Internet 'trolls', who circulate false rumors about them online.
Last month, London-listed oil explorer Gulf Keystone became the latest in a string of firms to say it would not tolerate what it said were attempts to damage its reputation and share price.
However, litigation is currently difficult and expensive in Britain, in part because victims often need to achieve a court order to force the website owner to hand over subscriber contact details.
Known as a 'Norwich Pharmacal order', named for a 1973 judgment which found that the Norwich Pharmacal Company was entitled to be told the identity of those whose illegal activity was hurting its business, the move has been used in Britain against Facebook and Wikipedia in recent years.
Under the new proposals, website operators would act as intermediaries, trying to resolve the dispute between author and complainant.
If attempts at resolution failed, they would be required to hand over the subscriber's contact details so the complainant could pursue legal action against the author. The website itself would be protected against any action as long as it complied with these rules.
The government's Defamation Bill aims to make the process of suing for defamation less expensive and more accessible, while providing for free speech.
British defamation laws are considered to be among the world's toughest, with the burden of proof on the defendant, but the cost of taking action favors the wealthy.
The proposed bill is passing through parliament at the same time as the ongoing Leveson inquiry looks into media ethics. The enquiry was prompted by a phone hacking scandal that has shaken the establishment and questioned the power of the press and the nature of its relationship with politicians and the police.
(Editing by Steve Addison)