Is libel law offside?
24 Oct 2007

It hasn’t been a good few days for ‘halfpint’, ‘ian’ and ‘vaughan’, three Sheffield Wednesday supporters who took advantage of the apparent anonymity provided by their usernames to post seriously nasty comments about the club’s directors on the ‘Owlstalk’ discussion site.

Last Friday Judge Richard Parkes QC decided that the posts ‘may reasonably be understood to allege greed, selfishness, untrustworthiness and dishonest behaviour on the part of the claimants’.

He reckons that the rights of the directors to track down the identity of the posters outweighs Owlstalk’s privacy policy or any data protection considerations. Site owner Neil Hargreaves has just been ordered to hand over their email addresses, and the directors concerned plan to track them down and sue them for libel.

Parkes is not the only judge faced with the need to balance the right to online privacy against a request to bring people to justice for alleged libels. Wednesday’s chairman, David Allen, has also sued the BBC to find the names of two posters to the 606 football forum, ‘enchanted-fox’ and ‘Rocker’, and may get his way here too.

This is not, however, a widespread attack on user anonymity or our ability to use pseudonyms to protect our real-world identities when we venture online. Although Parkes agreed that three of the pseudonymous posters had crossed the line he also refused an application to disclose the email addresses of a further eight contributors, arguing that their postings were ‘no more than saloon-bar moanings about the way in which the club is managed.’

Distinguishing between comments that are ‘plainly intended as jokes and unlikely to be taken seriously’ and material that is actionable is what we have judges for, and it is rather refreshing to see this sort of debate happening in court.

Too often those with economic or political power prefer to use the repressive power of a ‘cease and desist’ letter to get a website taken offline instead of going to the trouble of making their argument in public.

We saw it most recently when Schillings, acting for Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, persuaded the ISP Fasthosts to pull sites belonging to Tim Ireland, Craig Murray and Boris Johnson just because Usmanov objected to what Murray had written about him. There was no writ, and no judicial involvement, just a threatening letter to a craven hosting company that gave in without any protest.

Thanks to Judge Parkes we now have some case law to use when others try to breach the privacy provided by online pseudonyms, and some clearer sense of where the boundaries will be drawn when it comes to defending those whose speech is somehow deemed unacceptable.

Those who fear persecution or harrassment need to feel that the law will protect them from exposure, but it’s hard to defend hiding behind a username while posting abusive comments.

Meanwhile those of us whose attempts at vitriol never manage to rise about the level of ‘saloon-bar moanings’ can feel a little safer.

Bill Thompson is a journalist and commentator who blogs at

Padraig Reidy

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