I’m quite sure however that it is the purest form of coincidence that today, the Joint Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill scrunched up it’s collective parliamentary sphincter and squeezed out its first report.
Just to get a taste of what’s to come, here’s the first sentence from the summary.
The Government’s draft Bill proposes worthwhile reforms of defamation law, notably in effectively removing trial by jury, with its associated high costs, and in providing better protection for publishers by introducing the new single publication rule.
Justice is expensive, so let’s not do it. Not a great start to be sure.
But fear not, here’s a quote from the ‘Core Principles’ section
Freedom of expression/protection of reputation: some aspects of current law and procedure should provide greater protection to freedom of expression. This is a key foundation of any free society
The more cynical among you may be thinking that this is basically politician speak for “Imagine your freedom. Now imagine it in a cellar. Now imagine I’m Josef Fritzel”, and you know what? You wouldn’t be far off, at that.
Here’s what the committee recommends in the case of someone alleging defamation by someone on the internet who is not anonymous.
a) Where a complaint is received about allegedly defamatory material that is written by an identifiable author, the host or service provider must publish promptly a notice of complaint alongside that material. If the host or provider does not do so, it can only rely on the standard defences available to a primary publisher, if sued for defamation. The notice reduces the sting of the alleged libel but protects free speech by not requiring the host or service provider to remove what has been said; and
b) If the complainant wishes, the complainant may apply to a court for a take-down order. The host or service provider should inform the author about the application and both sides should be able to submit brief paper-based submissions. A judge will then read the submissions and make a decision promptly. Any order for take-down must then be implemented by the host or service provider immediately, or they risk facing a defamation claim as the publisher of the relevant statement. The timescale would be short and the costs for the complainant would be modest.
So far, so fuck you, but unfortunately this is very much in line with the precedent established in the now infamous Godfrey v Demon Internet libel case, and so far never overturned - though the wikipedia article hints that it may fall over on an HRA challenge - which established that your service provider can be held accountable for what you say, and by accountable, I mean like unlimited libel damages. There’s a good write up of some of the issues here, if you want some of the background, suffice to say that this fun fun bit of legal shenanigans already makes it pretty easy for your shit to be disappeared from the net, because your ISP/web host isn’t going to take the risk. If I’m reading the above right, it seems that the draft bill mitigates this somewhat if your ISP/host/provider of whatever publishes a notice saying that your ass is about to be sued.
I’m not even going to get into the technical or jurisdictional stuff, because what’s important here is the contrast between content with an identifiable author and content without such, viz :
We recommend that any material written by an unidentified person should be taken down by the host or service provider upon receipt of complaint, unless the author promptly responds positively to a request to identify themselves, in which case a notice of complaint should be attached. If the internet service provider believes that there are significant reasons of public interest that justify publishing the unidentified material—for example, if a whistle-blower is the source—it should have the right to apply to a judge for an exemption from the take-down procedure and secure a “leave-up” order. We do not believe that the host or service provider should be liable for anonymous material provided it has complied with the above requirements
So, say something bad about someone anonymously and all they have to do to get rid of it is issue a complaint to your service provider and unless you are prepared to reveal your identity, it disappears. Oh, unless of course your service provider decides to pony up some money for lawyers on your behalf.
I don’t want to get into a rant about the value of anonymity here, there’s plenty of that elsewhere and it’s a many faceted argument, but lest anyone be in any doubt that this represents an attempt to write into law the ability to silence the anonymous voice, here’s another quote
Specifically we expect, and wish to promote, a cultural shift towards a general recognition that unidentified postings are not to be treated as true, reliable or trustworthy. The desired outcome to be achieved—albeit not immediately—should be that they are ignored or not regarded as credible unless the author is willing to justify or defend what they have written by disclosing his or her identity.
Nudge nudge. Dog fuckers.