Proposed laws in the UK would force website operators to reveal the identity of those who post defamatory, bullying, or harrasing comments on their forums.

A debate on the defamation bill, which aims to protect victims by speeding up what is often a lengthy and expensive legal process, was under way in parliament on Tuesday.

Kenneth Clark, the justice secretary, said the measure would give greater protection to operators who complied with the
procedure.

"As the law stands, individuals can be the subject of scurrilous rumour and allegation on the web with little meaningful remedy against the person responsible," said Clarke in a statement.

Members of the public and companies alike, have made threats to take legal action against so-called internet 'trolls', who
circulate false rumours about them online.

"The government wants a libel regime for the internet that makes it possible for people to protect their reputations
effectively but also ensures that information online can't be easily censored by casual threats of litigation against website
operators", Clarke said.

In May, London-listed oil explorer Gulf Keystone became the latest in a string of firms to say it would not tolerate what it called attempts to damage its reputation and share price.

Implications for online free speech

However, litigation is currently difficult and expensive in Britain, in part because victims often need to achieve a court
order to force the website owner to hand over subscriber contact details.

Known as a 'Norwich Pharmacal order', named for a 1973 judgment which found that the Norwich Pharmacal Company was entitled to be told the identity of those whose illegal activity was hurting its business, the move has been used in Britain against Facebook and Wikipedia in recent years.

Under the new proposals, website operators would act as intermediaries, trying to resolve the dispute between author and
complainant.

If attempts at resolution failed, they would be required to hand over the subscriber's contact details so the complainant
could pursue legal action against the author.

The website itself would be protected against any action as long as it complied with the rules.

The government's defamation bill aims to make the process of suing for defamation less expensive and more accessible, while providing for free speech.

British defamation laws are considered to be among the world's toughest, with the burden of proof on the defendant.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies