Human Rights Committee says proposed changes could force websites to delete legitimate comment in order to protect themselves
New laws to tackle people who publish offensive messages online would have a "chilling effect" on free speech a committee of Peers and MPs has warned the Government.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) said that planned changes in the Defamation Bill would cause website operators to delete controversial statements even if they were not libellous.
Chairman Hywel Francis MP said that the committee was "glad to see steps taken to protect website operators who are merely hosting content. But as drafted the Bill could have a chilling effect on those publishing material online. There should be a higher threshold put in place before material has to be removed."
The Defamation Bill states that a message would be regarded as defamatory if it "has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation" of a person or a company. If, however, it can be shown that the statement is "substantially true", any claim for damages would fail.
The JCHR is concerned that complainants will not be obliged to declare whether the content of the message is accurate, so website owners will have to make their own judgement. The cost of doing so will lead many to simply delete the material.
The proposals the Committee is concerned about were announced in June last year by then Justice Secretary Ken Clarke. They would force website operators such as Twitter or Facebook to reveal the identity of people who post offensive messages, commonly called ‘internet trolls' if the target of the message complained.
Websites would also have to put the complainant in touch with the poster of the alleged libellous comments. If they could not they would have to take down the offending material.
According to Mr Clarke, this would save the website operator from being sued for libel and put an end to "scurrilous rumour and allegation" being posted online.
The committee's report said: "We think there is a real risk that website operators will be forced to arbitrate on whether something is defamatory or lawful, and will too readily make decisions on commercial grounds to remove allegedly defamatory material rather than engage with the process."
A representative for the Ministry of Justice said the government "welcomes the ...report" and would "give careful consideration" to the committee's recommendations."
The report today went to the committee stage in the House of Lords.
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