Cowardly internet ‘trolls’ who post vile abuse on Facebook and Twitter will be identified to their victims under laws unveiled today.
Justice Secretary Ken Clarkey wants to strip away the cloak of anonymity which shields website users who peddle lies and vicious smears.
Internet companies will be expected to agree to rules over how to deal with libellous comments posted on their sites.
They will be told that – provided they agree to hand over the identity of the abuser to their victim – the internet company itself will be protected from legal action by the victim of abuse.
If they refuse, however, they could be hauled before the courts and fined thousands of pounds for the hateful comments, even though they were made by a visitor to their website.
Officials believe the prospect of protection from a defamation case will be enough of a ‘carrot’ for the likes of Twitter and Facebook to agree to the new regime.
It will finally help to bring to an end the injustice of victims being subject to sickening online abuse – often from those they have never met – with little chance of finding out who is responsible.
In future, they will be able to use the names and email addresses of their tormentors to bring a prosecution for libel.
There have been a string of cases of ‘trolls’ posting lies – such as making accusations of paedophilia – on social networking sites.
Last night, Mr Clarke said: ‘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.
‘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.
‘Our proposed approach will mean that website operators have a defence against libel as long as they identify the authors of allegedly defamatory material when requested to do so by a complainant.’
The proposals are included in the Defamation Bill, which will be debated by MPs today.
The new powers will be balanced by proposals to stop people falsely claiming critical articles are defamatory simply to get them removed.
A one-year time limit is also being introduced to stop old articles triggering new libel claims.
Another of the issues facing the new legislation is how to identify internet users who leave abuse by using a shared computer, such as in an internet cafe.
Last week, a mother who was sent death threats by so-called internet ‘trolls’ won a landmark legal case against Facebook.
Nicola Brookes was tormented for months by anonymous bullies after she left an innocent message of support for an X Factor contestant on the social networking site.
She went to police to make a complaint but claimed officers told her to go home. But the 45-year-old refused to give up and, on Friday, won a court order forcing Facebook to identify the identities of the trolls. She now hopes to bring a private prosecution against them.
The benefit of the planned law change is that a victim will no longer have to spend large sums of money dragging the case to court.
Instead, they will be able to obtain their accuser’s identity direct from the website hosting their remarks. An internet company that refuses to co-operate can still be dragged to court to reveal the details.
In the case of Mrs Brookes, the information disclosed included the bullies’ names, email addresses and their computers’ internet protocol addresses, which can be used to determine a computer’s location.
Mr Clarke said: ‘The Government wants a libel regime for the internet that makes it possible for people to protect their reputations but also ensures information online can’t be easily censored by casual threats of litigation against website operators.
‘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 overall aim of the Defamation Bill is to end ‘libel tourism’ and protect free speech. In recent years London has become the libel capital of the world.
Critics say this is because regulations favour claimants and that the very high costs involved in defending a claim mean many publications are forced to settle out of court, even when they believe what they published was true.
In an attempt to end trivial claims, future claimants will have to show that material has caused them ‘serious harm’. And those from outside the EU will face new hurdles before they can bring a claim in London.
Journalists will also be allowed a defence against defamation where they can show the material is in the public interest.