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Defamation Bill Moves To Unmask Online Bullies And End The Rule Of The Trolls

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The age of the troll could be over.

Websites might be forced to unmask people who post defamatory statements online.

Under new government proposals in the Defamation Bill, victims of online bullying will gain the right to discover the identity of those posting "scurrilous rumour and allegations" on the internet.

The bill, which will be debated in the Commons on Tuesday, will also see would-be claimants having to show they have suffered serious harm to their reputations, or are likely to do so, before they can take a defamation case forward.

The new rules will mean that those affected by defamatory statements can take action without going to the High Court.

Websites will not be prosecuted for displaying offensive comments if they help to uncover trolls' identities.

But the government has attempted to head off criticisms about internet freedom by including measures designed to stop false claims about defamation resulting in the removal of comments.

Currently each separate page view of a defamatory statement counts as a single offence. That rule will be removed and a one-year limit will be introduced meaning complaints can not be made about old material.

The new measures have been announced a few days after a woman won the right to unmask people who claimed she was a pedophile on Facebook because she posted a supportive comment about an X Factor contestant.

Nicola Brookes won the right to unmask her tormentors at the High Court, after police did not investigate when she was sent death threats and messages were sent to her children on the social networking site.

Her lawyers are now said to be considering legal action against the four people believed to have been involved.

It also comes after an internet troll who sent a threatening email to a Conservative MP was banned last week from contacting a host of celebrities.

Frank Zimmerman narrowly escaped jail when a district judge suspended a 26-week prison sentence for two years after he sent an offensive email to Corby MP Louise Mensch.

The bill will also introduce a single-publication rule, so that the one-year limitation period in which a libel action can be brought would run from the date of the first publication of material, even if the same article is subsequently published on a website on a later date.

The reform is intended to end the current situation by which material in online archives is regarded as being republished every time it is downloaded which, in effect, leaves the archive operator with a limitless risk of being sued.

The bill will also replace the common law defences of justification and honest comment with new statutory defences of truth and honest opinion.

The so-called Reynolds defence of responsible journalism published in the public interest also gets statutory recognition, as responsible publication on a matter of public interest.

"Website operators are in principle liable as publishers for everything that appears on their sites, even though the content is often determined by users," said Justice Secretary Ken Clarke.

"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."

David Engel, head of the reputation protection and media litigation team at Addleshaw Goddard, said the laws would provide some useful guidance for publishers.

He said: "The current draft bill provides welcome clarification of the limits on the liability of website operators, provided they comply with the proposed notice and take down procedure, which importantly will require them to identify authors of defamatory postings."

But Engel also cautioned that "the internet has never been a law-free zone" and that those who hoped to hide behind anonymity should think again.

"People may be less willing to libel others if their identity is known, or at least can be discovered, though whether this is likely in practice to raise the general tone of online debate is another matter."