Warning to abusive bloggers

Some interesting cases were decided last week.

Disgruntled fans of Sheffield Wednesday who vented their dissatisfaction with the football club’s bigwigs in anonymous internet postings may face expensive libel claims after the chairman, chief executive and five directors won a high-court ruling last week forcing the owner of a website to reveal their identity.

The case, featuring the website owlstalk.co.uk, is the second within days to highlight the danger of assuming that the apparent cloak of anonymity gives users of internet forums and chatrooms carte blanche to say whatever they like.

In another high court case last week, John Finn, owner of the Sunderland property firm Pallion Housing, admitted just before he was due to be cross-examined that he was responsible for a website hosting a scurrilous internet campaign about a rival housing organisation, Gentoo Group, its employees and owner, Peter Walls.

Exposing the identity of those who post damaging lies in cyberspace is a growth area for libel lawyers.

Dan Tench, of Olswang, the law firm representing Gentoo, said: “This case illustrates an increasingly important legal issue: proving who is responsible for the publication of anonymous material on the internet. This is likely to be a significant issue in defamation cases in the future.”

The website Dadsplace, set up to campaign against perceived injustices in the family courts, had a forum where anonymous postings made various accusations against Gentoo, Mr Walls and his staff.

Those posting the comments went to considerable lengths to hide their identity, and Gentoo’s lawyers ran up a bill estimated to be about £300,000 – which Mr Finn will now have to pick up, along with any damages awarded – taking the case to court and amassing circumstantial evidence that he was behind the website…

Another lucrative line of business for m’learned friends. And a salutary reminder to utopian libertarians that the law has a longer arm than we once supposed.