MPs warn on 'chilling effect' of proposed anti-trolling law

By Danny Palmer
12 Dec 2012 View Comments

Legislation designed to deal with internet trolling could have a "chilling effect" on online freedoms, MPs and Lords have warned.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has published its report on the upcoming Defamation Bill ahead of its committee stage in the House of Lords which begins on 17 December.

Further reading

Under the proposed legislation, social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter will not be held responsible for claims posted by users, while also making it easier for the authorities to track down the individuals who made the statements.

But to be entitled to the protection offered under the bill, the website must agree to aid the victim of the claimed defamation in finding the poster, or remove the material if the user can't be tracked down.

The plans were announced in June by then Justice Secretary Ken Clarke in order to make it easier to punish internet users for trolling. However, the JCHR's statement on the proposed legislation say that it is inflexible and will only perpetuate existing problems.

The Committee recommends that the bill be replaced by a "clear, unambiguous defence of public interest, which gives proper consideration to editorial judgment."

Dr Hywel Francis MP, Chair of the Committee, suggests scrapping the proposed legislation in favour of an improved Bill.

"The Bill is a timely response to a pressing issue, and we welcome the Government's recognition of the need for more protection for those publishing in the public interest," he said.

"However, we are not convinced that the Bill's proposed public interest defence does that effectively. We propose an alternative that is both clearer and more flexible. This would help to ensure that the Bill fulfils its main aim of rebalancing the law of defamation in favour of freedom of speech."

Francis argued that if legislation is put into place, the threshold for content removal should be set at a higher level.

"We are also glad to see steps taken to protect website operators who are merely hosting content. But as drafted, the Bill could have a chilling effect on those publishing material online," he said.

"If we are to protect against that threat, there should be a higher threshold put in place before material has to be removed, and statutory guidance for educational institutions that makes clear the importance of freedom of speech."

The Defamation Bill isn't the only proposed legislation which has been criticised for compromising online freedoms. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has urged the government to rethink the Data Communications Bill, commonly referred to by critics as a "Snooper's Charter".

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