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Defamation (Operators of Websites) Regulations 2013

Volume 749: debated on Tuesday 19 November 2013

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Defamation (Operators of Websites) Regulations 2013.

Relevant document: 10th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, these regulations are made in exercise of the powers conferred on the Secretary of State for Justice by Section 5 of the Defamation Act 2013. Section 5 creates a new defence against an action for defamation for the operators of websites hosting user-generated content. Where an action in defamation is brought against a website operator in respect of such material the operator will not, however, be able to rely on that defence where the claimant shows: that he or she did not know who had posted the statement on the website; that he or she had complained to the operator about the statement in the proper way; and that the operator had failed to respond to that complaint in the way set out in these regulations.

The approach that we have taken in these regulations aims to support freedom of expression by allowing operators generally to retain the benefit of the defence without the need for material to be taken down where the person who has posted it co-operates with the process and wishes to stand by the material. In such a case the process will help to enable complainants to resolve their concerns with, or take action against, the poster of the allegedly defamatory material. Equally it will ensure that, to rely on the defence, an operator must remove the material complained about where the poster cannot be identified or is unwilling to engage in the process.

Informal views were sought on the contents of the process set out in the regulations from a range of key stakeholders including internet organisations, claimant and defendant representatives, media bodies and non-governmental organisations.

To benefit from the Section 5 defence, operators will be required to carry out prescribed actions within a short fixed time limit. A range of views was expressed by stakeholders on what time limits were appropriate. We consider that the approach we have taken strikes the right balance in ensuring that action is taken as promptly as possible, without placing unreasonable burdens on operators or denying posters a reasonable opportunity to engage with the process.

The time limits are subject to a general discretion, in the event of a defamation action being brought against the operator, for the court to waive any time limit if it considers that it is in the interests of justice to do so. That will ensure that the defence is not lost through, for example, an inadvertent or unavoidable failure by an operator to comply with a time limit if the court thinks that this would be unfair. The process is not compulsory, and operators can still choose either to remove a statement immediately on receipt of a complaint, or allow it to remain posted. An operator which takes either course of action can of course seek to rely on any other defences that may be available against a defamation action.

Noble Lords may find it helpful if I explain the process established by the regulations in detail. To trigger the process, a person complaining about a statement posted on an operator’s website must send the operator a notice of complaint. Regulation 2 and Section 5(6) of the Act set out the information that must be included in a notice of complaint.

These provisions require that the notice must state where on the website the statement was posted, set out what the statement says and explain why it is defamatory of the complainant, and explain what meaning the complainant attributes to the statement and what aspects he or she believes are factually inaccurate or are opinions not supported by fact. The notice must also confirm that the complainant does not have sufficient information about the poster to bring proceedings directly against him or her.

The complainant does not have to provide detailed evidence to support what is said, but the intention is that the poster should have sufficient information to reach an informed decision on how to respond. The complainant must also provide his or her name and an e-mail address at which he or she can be contacted, but can ask the operator not to provide this to the poster of the statement. These provisions were supported by a substantial majority of those who provided views on the content of the regulations.

Where the complainant does not provide all the required information, to retain the defence Regulation 4 provides that the operator must inform the complainant of this in writing within 48 hours of receipt of the notice of complaint, and must tell the complainant what is required for a notice to be valid. In common with other instances under the regulations where an operator is required to take action within 48 hours, this time period excludes non-business days such as weekends. The operator is not required to specify exactly what it considers is wrong with the notice that the complainant has sent. This avoids imposing any obligation on an operator to guide or advise the complainant. However, the guidance accompanying the regulations makes clear that operators can provide this information to the complainant if they wish to do so.

Paragraphs 2 to 4 of the Schedule to the regulations explain what an operator which wishes to rely on the defence must do on receipt of a valid notice of complaint. Paragraph 2 provides that the operator must contact the poster of the statement complained of within 48 hours and paragraph 4 provides that it must also inform the complainant that this has been done. If the operator has no means of contacting the poster by e-mail or another means of private electronic messaging, paragraph 3 of the Schedule to the regulations provides that, in order to retain the defence, the operator must remove the statement within 48 hours and must inform the complainant that this has been done.

Paragraph 2 of the Schedule sets out what information the operator has to provide to the poster to enable the poster to respond to the complaint. This includes a deadline for the poster to respond of midnight at the end of the fifth day after the day on which the operator sends the information to the poster. The operator must specify the calendar date on which the deadline expires and ask the poster within that time to confirm whether or not the poster wishes the statement to be removed from the website and, if not, to provide his or her name and postal address to the operator and confirm whether or not he or she consents to this information being released to the complainant.

Paragraphs 5, 6 and 7 of the Schedule deal respectively with situations where the poster fails to respond within the prescribed time period, where the poster responds but does not provide all the information requested, or where the poster agrees to the removal of the statement. In all these circumstances the operator is then required to remove the statement within 48 hours and to inform the complainant that this has been done. If the poster provides a name and postal address that a reasonable operator would consider to be obviously false, the operator is required to treat the response as not containing all the required information, and hence must remove the statement.

To ensure that the regulations operate effectively where the statement has already been removed before the operator is required to do so, paragraph 1 of the Schedule provides that in those circumstances the operator is taken to have complied with the relevant requirement.

If the poster indicates that he wishes the statement to remain on the website and provides the relevant contact details, paragraph 8 of the Schedule provides that the operator must inform the complainant within 48 hours that the statement has not been removed and, if the poster agrees, pass the poster’s contact details on to the complainant. If the poster does not agree to release his contact details, the operator must inform the complainant of this. Provided it has complied with these requirements, the operator will have a defence under Section 5 unless it can be shown that the operator acted with malice in relation to the posting of the statement concerned.

Where the poster has not consented to release of his or her contact details to the complainant, it will be a matter for the complainant to consider what further action he may wish to take. It will, for example, be open to the complainant to seek a court order, known as a Norwich Pharmacal order, for the operator to release the information that they hold on the poster’s identity and contact details so that legal proceedings can be brought against the poster.

Paragraph 9 of the Schedule provides further protection for complainants in circumstances where material has been removed following a notice of complaint, but the poster persists in reposting the same or substantially the same material on the same website. On the first such occasion, to keep the Section 5 defence the operator must follow the full process and seek the poster’s views. However, on being informed by the complainant that the poster has posted the same or substantially the same statement on two or more previous occasions, the operator is required to remove the statement within 48 hours of receiving the notice of complaint without seeking to contact the poster again.

We consider that this is a fair and proportionate approach which gives the poster an opportunity on a first reposting to engage with the process in circumstances where, for example, they were not aware of the original notice of complaint but which tackles persistent reposting by immediate removal.

I believe that the process established by the regulations strikes a fair balance between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation and between the interests of all those involved, and that it will provide a useful and effective means of helping to resolve disputes over online material. I therefore commend these draft regulations and I beg to move.

My Lords, we should be very grateful to my noble friend for a very full explanation of what he seeks to be approved today. It sounds dry and technical but, in fact, although I do not say that my noble friend Lord McNally is like Moses in the splendid portrait, bringing down the tables of the law to the Israelites, in seeking the approval of the House to the regulations what he is doing is important not only in this country but throughout Europe and in the wider world.

We are trying in the regulations to lay down a fair framework, as my noble friend said, which will provide effective remedies to victims without unduly burdening the freedom of speech. If he will allow me to say so—he has little choice—I remember him at an early stage insisting that the Defamation Bill should cover the difficult subject of defamation via the internet. That was an important decision taken by him, however difficult it was to give effect to it. It was important because we had no proper laws in this country striking a fair balance between free speech and defamation in relation to the internet. The regulations are part of the process which, I understand, will come into force in April. They will be read with interest in the United States, on the most libertarian side, and in China, on the most restrictive.

In this country we are subject to the e-commerce directive, which strikes a European balance between the extremes of absolute immunity for internet service providers and the Chinese firewall—the great wall of China—which seeks to regulate the internet. In Europe, we find a compromise and the beauty of these regulations is that they strike a fair balance, as the Minister has said. They do not deal with other problems of speech via the internet. They do not deal with privacy. They do not deal, obviously, with cybercrime. They do not deal with copyright, which is dealt with very well by our own courts. They deal with all that they can deal with, which is defamation. I am sure that it is right to do so by means of regulations rather than on the face of the statute. That enables flexibility in the future when, as I am sure we will have to, we will need to amend the scheme in the light of further technological change.

In one sense, we are trying to do something which King Canute’s courtiers failed to do. They could not stop the tide from coming in and we cannot in this country, by our one system alone, deal with all abuses on the world wide web. However, I would be sceptical about trying to seek too much international regulation of the internet because I fear that that would, unlike these regulations, be too coercive of free speech and too much overregulation.

I congratulate the noble Lord and the Government on these regulations. They are probably the last word that we will say in this House about the process of completing the work on the Defamation Act, which has taken three careful years by the noble Lord and his team, and by the other place. I am very glad to be present today to welcome these regulations.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who was instrumental in securing reform of defamation law and has campaigned long and hard for that. I also join him in thanking the Minister for walking us through this rather tangled undergrowth of regulations. I am bound to say that the Minister reminds me less of Moses bringing down the tablets than perhaps Daniel exercising judgment. I should like to think that I was descended from one or other; I may be remotely connected but I do not think that I am descended from either of them.

After 45 years as a solicitor, I know something about the law of defamation, although I would not claim to be an expert. But when it comes to the world of computers, information technology and social media, I confess to being an utter novice. At the risk of being labelled a Marxist by the right-wing press or Conservative Central Office, I recall some words of Marx—Groucho, I hasten to add, and not Karl. In one of his films, which might have been “A Night at the Opera” but I would not swear to that, he is seen poring over a map and declares that a child of five could understand the map. He continues: “Bring me a child of five”. I am tempted to make the same request when confronted by matters of the kind encompassed by these regulations.

We share the Government’s objective to protect freedom of speech, in which the internet and social media can and do play such an important part. We welcome the thrust of the regulations, although perhaps it would have been better if guidance on Section 5 of the Defamation Act had been available in draft form when the legislation was under consideration on its journey through Parliament. The regulations appear to offer reasonable protection to the operators of websites but there are perhaps questions about the extent to which they adequately protect those who claim to be defamed by material appearing on those sites. Thus, the website operator will have a defence, as we have heard, to an action if it can show that it did not post the material in question unless the claimant can show that he or she did not have sufficient information to bring legal proceedings against the poster of the statement and that the operator failed to comply with a notice requiring it to identify the poster requested by the complainant. Of course, this assumes that the claimant has the means to pursue that legal remedy, a somewhat questionable proposition in the light of the matter of costs. We are not now dealing with conventional media stories with a limited shelf life and relatively limited audience, although perhaps quite a wide reach, but with material with a potentially unlimited shelf life—unless, like the Conservative Party’s once publicly available material, it can be conveniently hidden—and a consequently higher risk of damage to a complainant’s reputation.

Part 4 of the guidance explains that the operator will have a defence when the complainant has sufficient information to bring an action against a poster but, again, that relies on the claimant having the means to do so—and what if the poster is outside the jurisdiction? It is all very well for the guidance to proclaim that disputes should be resolved directly between the complainant and the poster but, in the event that the poster does not wish a statement to be removed and his details to be released to the complainant, the latter will have to obtain a court order to obtain the details, again raising the issue of cost. Would it not have been better to have established for these purposes a less formal and less expensive mechanism, in which a panel, perhaps financed by the industry itself, could determine whether the information as to identity should be released and whether the post should be removed, leaving the question of financial compensation to be determined by the courts?

On a further point, what is the Government’s response to the observation of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee to the need for the guidance to define,

“how terms such as ‘receipt’ are interpreted in this legislation”?

The Explanatory Memorandum to the regulations sets out the response to consultation and lays down welcome tighter timetables for action by the operator and poster following a notice of complaint. However, somewhat disappointingly, it requires further notices to be given when the material has been the subject of two or more complaints rather than immediately. Moreover, paragraph 9 of the Schedule to the regulations makes it clear that even the more limited protection afforded by this provision is available only when the same poster is involved. If a different person posts the same material, the whole process must be gone through again by the defamed claimant—and the material can be identical.

My honourable friend Dan Jarvis, speaking for the Opposition yesterday in the debate in the Commons, asked the Government whether they would keep the new process under early review, given the speed at which the world moves. Is the Minister able to confirm that that is the Government’s intention and that such a review would be initiated within a year of the regulations taking effect and be kept under regular review thereafter? Will they look again at suggestions made in Committee during debates on the Defamation Bill that would require the operator to post a notice of complaint, should one be received, alongside the alleged defamatory material so that those who view the material can, at least, be alerted to the fact that the matter is disputed?

Having said that, we support the regulations. As the noble Lord, Lord Lester, indicated, things change, and it is necessary to keep these matters under review. Perhaps some of the points that I have raised could be taken on board at the time of the first review and in the light of the experience that will develop over the next few months or so.

My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions of both noble Lords. As the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is very much the godfather of this Act, and I have benefited from his wisdom over the whole three years. As he says, the end is nigh, in that the Act will come into force on 1 January 2014, including these regulations. He points to the fact that although the Act itself will, I hope, give the kind of balance between freedom and the rights of the defamed which will stand the test of time, as he and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, have said, legislators will always have the problem of how fast technology moves. I am not one of those who believe that new communications technologies should be beyond governance, but it is going to be a continuing challenge. The noble Lord rightly points to areas such as copyright, privacy and cybercrime, which we will continue to grapple with. But we set an example by being flexible and, as both noble Lords indicated, by underpinning free speech as far as we can and avoiding overregulation.

The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, always starts with a statement of modesty by saying that he does not understand these things and that they are all so complex. He then deftly skips through the particular regulations posing me difficult questions. I will try to address some of them.

Anyone listening to this debate will know that this is a complex matter, but it is complex because we have to get the balance right between the poster, the internet provider and the complainant. We do not want to overburden the provider with regulations or drag him into court cases. This is an attempt to ensure that the complainant and the poster are brought face to face, as it were, as easily as possible.

We are taking steps to introduce a system of cost protection for defamation and privacy and have recently consulted on that. We are currently considering the views expressed with the intention of introducing that as early as possible next year. I am grateful to the Master of the Rolls for the advice that he has given me on that.

On monitoring, it is always tempting, particularly for the Opposition, to ask for a review within a year. We obviously need an opportunity to see how these matters will settle down. Parliament has put in place formal reviews within a period of three to five years of royal assent. This Act will be subject to the usual arrangements of parliamentary scrutiny. However, the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, is quite right. We will continue to informally monitor the operation of these regulations and we will certainly not hesitate to draw the attention of Parliament to them if they do not seem to function as we hope they will.

On not releasing details and putting complainants to the cost of a Norwich Pharmacal order, there may be a good reason why the poster is unwilling to release the contact details. On balance, we consider that it is right for a court order to be obtained in these circumstances. However, there may also be cases where, through the operation of the process set out in regulations, a poster agrees to release contact details to the complainant, avoiding the necessity to obtain a court order.

The other question was on the matter of the definition of “received” in the regulations. While ultimately it will be for the court to interpret the regulations, we consider that the word “received” should be given its natural meaning and that therefore the notice of complaint would be “received” at the point when it is delivered. That is when it has arrived at the operator’s machine. We will make that view clearer in the guidance accompanying the regulations.

As both noble Lords indicated, the Act has been broadly welcomed by those who have campaigned for it. We believe that it will defend free speech while giving those who are defamed a reasonable opportunity for redress, and with some protection from the costs of doing so. Section 5 of the Act, and these regulations, represent an important part of the package of measures designed to reform the law of defamation. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, is right: given the way the world is moving from the printed page to electronic communications, it would have ducked the issue had we not tried to address the matter in the Act. In so doing, I think we strike a fair balance between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation, as I said in my opening remarks. The regulations strike a fair balance between the various interests involved, and their approval will enable the Act as a whole to be brought into force on a timely basis at the end of this year. I hope that noble Lords will agree that this is a proportionate and sensible measure.

Motion agreed.