A recent decision of the High Court has reinforced the principle that websites can be forced to reveal the identities of anonymous posters of defamatory messages.
Allegedly defamatory statements about two AIM-listed oil companies and their management, Nighthawk Energy and Nostra Terra Oil and Gas, had been posted on bulletins boards by anonymous posters. The companies claimed that the comments about the companies and their management were untrue and extremely damaging.
The High Court granted the court orders forcing bulletin board operators, Interactive Investor (iii) and ADVFN, to provide the identity of the individuals who anonymously posted the comments about the companies. It was noted by the court that false messages are often posted deliberately by people to try and profit from rises or falls in a company's share price. As a result of the court orders the individuals' identities have been provided to the two oil companies, who are considering whether to take action against the individuals for defamation.
This case echoes that of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club Limited and others v Neil Hargreaves in 2007 in which the High Court ordered the owner of a football club fan website to disclose the identities of four users of the website in relation to the posting of allegedly defamatory statements regarding the football club's management. In that case, the High Court set out some clear guidelines as to when a court can require a website operator to disclose the identities of posters of defamatory messages. In reaching its decision the High Court took into account the gravity of the defamatory allegations, the fact that the directors of the football club did not have any other means of discovering the identities of the website users, the website's restrictions on the use of defamatory language and the fact that the website operator did not have a confidentiality policy for website users.
Due to the gravity of the defamatory allegations the High Court held that the right of the website users to maintain anonymity and express themselves freely was outweighed by the directors' entitlement to take action to protect their reputations. That case illustrated that the courts will not reach a decision to require disclosure lightly, as it will have an impact upon an individual's rights of privacy and freedom of expression.
Court orders obliging websites to disclose the identities of users posting anonymous defamatory remarks began in 2001. The operators of websites have protection from having to disclose information about anonymous posters under confidentiality laws and the Data Protection Act 1998. However in certain circumstances the courts can make orders which require the disclosure of the identity of wrongdoers and this latest case reaffirms this position.