If recent events are any indication, the age of the Internet troll (website commenters who post negative and potentially damaging statements about others) may soon come to an end.
According to the BBC, a new proposal by the British government would force websites to reveal the identity of commenters when requested by a complainant.
The new dictate has been added to the in-progress Defamation Bill, a legal framework outlining the rules governing defamation lawsuits that has been in the works since 2009.
"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. "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."
The issue made headlines after the High Court in London forced Facebook to reveal the IP addresses of a group that had been taunting Brighton mum Nicola Brookes after she registered support for unpopular X-Factor contestant Frankie Cocozza. Other cases have resulted in jail time for the cyber bullies, most notably that of student Liam Stacey, who recieved a 56 day sentence for racially abusing Fabrice Muamba following the footballer's heart attack.
Across the pond, a similar bill is in the works for New York web users. The bill would ban all anonymous comments from New York websites, essentially forcing anyone interested in leaving a comment to verify their identity first - a step in the direction of the real name policy currently being brought into force in China. While the legality of such a bill - as well as its chances of actually being passed in the States - remains unclear, these events all point to a trend of governments pushing for an end to anonymity on the Internet.
For years journalists and whistleblowers alike have relied on anonymous messages in the service of vital information making its way to the public. However, if Internet anonymity is eventually quashed by legal means, it could have broad repercussions on the future of free speech online. Nevertheless, Clarke claims the measures in the U.K. will continue to protect such anonymous speech.
"It will be very important to ensure that these measures do not inadvertently expose genuine whistleblowers, and we are committed to getting the detail right to minimise this risk," Clarke said.
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