The House of Lords has recently made a number of key recommendations for owners of websites, including to:
- make more of an effort to monitor use made of their services;
- establish the identity of users;
- comply with requests of enforcement authorities for disclosure of users' identities;
- develop systems to detect harassing behaviours; and
- publish statistics on any monitoring carried out.
The cost and burden of these suggestions could potentially be enormous and it is also questionable how far such obligations would extend. For example, whilst the suggestions are made in the context of social media interaction, would any website that offers comment, review, blog, chat and feedback facilities be required to comply? By comparison, it is certainly difficult to imagine those at a high street store, town hall or shopping centre being required to undertake such identity gathering, verification and monitoring in relation to all visitors.
For now, recommendations made in the Lords report are not legally binding.
Nevertheless, the points highlight how website owners can play 'piggy in the middle' in disputes between users of their facilities. Earlier this year, a statutory defence from civil liability was introduced for website owners on whose sites allegedly defamatory comments are posted by a third party. Without such defence, owners run the risk of being liable for potentially unlimited damages. However, in order to benefit from the defence, the website owner must follow a strict procedure with various deadlines, limited to days rather than weeks, in which they may need to send and receive various communications between the offended party and the individual who posted the material.
Whether it is fair that the role of website owners is becoming increasingly scrutinised in online disputes between third parties is open to debate. However, what is clear is that businesses operating online should ensure they protect themselves as best as they can and are prepared in the event they become embroiled in such matters.
If you would like more information on this topic, please contact Kevin Rimmer, a Solicitor in Taylors' Commercial and Information Technology team, on 0844 8000 264 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.