Capturing the Internet Trolls

Website operators in the UK may soon be forced to reveal the identity of those who post defamatory comments on their forums, under planned new British laws. This move aims to protect victims by speeding up what is often a lengthy and expensive legal process, and allows the victim to undertake legal action against the “troll” rather than against the website.

The term “trolls” has come to mean those behind intentionally provocative online actions intended to cause grief or incite an angry response. Trolls may exist in any online community that allows comments from users – such as social networking sites, forums, chat rooms and online video-games sites.

“Trolls” can act individually or in groups – known as “colluding” trolls. One member of such a group often behaves as the obvious troll, while the others disguise themselves as normal members of the online community. These trolls in disguise then defend the comments of the overt one.

Currently, a website operator is liable for everything that appears on its site. So if somebody believes that something defamatory has been written about them online, he or she may have to take the website to court, incurring huge costs.

Talking to the BBC, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke explained:

“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. 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.”

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.