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Tuesday, 20 March, 2001, 15:43 GMT
Websites forced to reveal user identity
Motley Fool discussion groups Motely Fool
By BBC News Online's technology correspondent Mark Ward

A High Court judge has told two UK websites to reveal which user was behind defamatory messages placed in discussion groups.

Legal action launched by net company Totalise has ended with the financial websites the Motley Fool and Interactive Investor International being forced to hand over the identity of the user who was only known online by a nickname.

The ruling could have implications for any website that lets people post messages anonymously.

Web law experts said the ruling showed that the online world was no longer regarded as a special case and should be subject to offline laws.

Web defence

The case centred on comments posted on the financial websites by a user that went by the nickname of Zeddust.

Defamatory comments about net service provider Totalise appeared first on the Motley Fool website. The Motley Fool webmasters removed the comments and banned Zeddust when told about their existence, but declined requests to reveal who exactly was posting the messages.

Once banned from the Motley Fool, Zeddust then popped up on Interactive Investor International and posted more defamatory messages about Totalise. When asked, Interactive Investor removed the offending comments, and banned Zeddust from its service. But Interactive Investor also refused to reveal the exact identity of Zeddust.

In a bid to find out who was behind the messages, Totalise launched a legal action, and now a High Court judge has found in its favour.

Ruling in the case, Mr Justice Robert Owen said the messages posted by Zeddust were clearly defamatory and that, unless he ruled for Totalise, people would be able to defame with impunity online.

Offline goes online

Totalise is now expected to launch a libel action against the person who posted the defamatory messages.

In the past, many net service providers have escaped censure because they simply acted as carriers of data and did not edit the information they passed on. But Mr Justice Robert Owen said this defence did not apply to the Motley Fool because it did monitor and manage discussions on its site.

The ruling was made on 19 February but has only now been written up in law reports.

Nick Lockett, a solicitor and net law expert from Stanhope and Hooper, said the ruling was not a landmark judgement, but was simply reminding net companies of their responsibilities under UK law.

"There have always been specific provisions under UK law, from long before the first day of the internet, that said if you are in possession of information that identifies a wrong-doer then you can be ordered to hand it over," said Mr Lockett.

The ruling also showed that the net should not be regarded as a special case, said Mr Lockett. "The internet is just a sophisticated communications tool and is an integral part of business life just like the fax or telephone."

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