High Court orders a football website to reveal identity of individuals posting defamatory statements

17 December 2007

Barry Jennings

On 18 October 2007, the High Court gave judgment in a case where the claimants were seeking an order for a website operator to reveal the identity of users of the site who the claimants accused of posting numerous defamatory statements on the website’s message boards. The court ordered that the identities of the users who had posted the most serious accusations be revealed, but importantly it also protected the identities of users where it regarded their statements to be, whilst strictly defamatory, so trivial as not to warrant overriding the authors’ rights of privacy.

The claimants, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, its Chairman, Chief Executive and 5 directors sought an order from the High Court against Neil Hargreaves, who operated Owlstalk.co.uk, a website for Sheffield Wednesday fans to discuss their team, forcing him to reveal the identity of 11 users of his website. The claimants accused the members of pursuing a “sustained campaign of vilification” against them using pseudonyms to post defamatory statements on Owlstalk.co.uk.

The court held that where members had posted comments that could “reasonably be understood to allege greed, selfishness, untrustworthiness and dishonest behaviour on the part of the Claimants” this was sufficiently serious to justify the invasion of the members’ privacy rights. However, Deputy Judge Richard Parks refused to grant the order in relation to users whose messages were “barely defamatory or little more than abusive or likely to be understood as jokes”. In his opinion this would have been a disproportionate and unjustified intrusion against the individuals’ privacy, where the users “must have expected, given their use of anonymous pseudonyms, that their privacy would be respected.”

In reaching its decision the court considered the website’s terms of use which prohibited the use of defamatory statements on its message boards and the lack of any policy of confidentiality for members’ benefit supported the case for revealing the identity of the users. This suggests that a website with a policy of confidentiality would have a better chance to protect its users’ identities. This may be something website operators should look to review within their terms and conditions.