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January 6, 2014

Defamation online

Libel laws now give websites more protection.

By Cbr Rolling Blog

The Defamation Act 2013 has now come into effect, and will be a welcome sight for web moderators, with the law catching up somewhat to the ephemeral nature of the internet.

The act got an overdue update last year, which has now come into force, after its previous iteration left website operators in a sticky quagmire over exactly where their responsibility lay to see that no libel was published on their pages.

Libel laws exist to protect people from unfair attacks upon their person made without proof, and extend to cover comments on people’s websites, and, of course, web pages themselves.

But moderators have long been caught in a dilemma that the previous act did little to clear up: should they be pro-active and check no libellous comments have been posted, or should they wait until someone complained via a dedicated report abuse button, then remove the offending post?

If they did the first one, they would have to catch all such comments – miss just one and they get taken to court, because their vigilance is the only way libel can be removed.

Do the second, and they may be failing in their duty to check for libel.

It looks like the new act has got it right this time: such is the popularity of some websites that it is impossible for moderators to check all comments for libel, and so the updated act has stated that website operators no longer have to.

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Instead they must remove any offending comment once someone has reported it to them – promptly, within 48 hours.

Here’s a good summary of tips from Press Gazette that website operators should do to abide by the new law:

– Have a robust, written complaints policy
– Designate and train staff to deal with complaints correctly, and within the new timescales. Timing is critical
– Acknowledge and deal with complaints promptly – preferably by email, in order to comply with the 48-hour deadline
– Give website users clear instructions on how to complain, and who to. This may mean providing a Report Abuse button
– Update their website terms and conditions to reflect the new arrangements
– A website operator providing message boards is advised to register users before they are allowed to make a post
– Registration should include taking their names and contact details
– Users should be told, before they accept site terms and conditions, that the operator may divulge their details if they post anything defamatory
– Keep proper written records of complaints, with the dates and times of actions taken.

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