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Anonymity no protection for online libellers

Motley Fool ruling 'a timely reminder'

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The tenuous nature of online anonymity was underlined yesterday, thanks to the final ruling in the Motley Fool libel case.

Terry Smith, chief executive of city firm Collins Stewart Tullett, won undisclosed damages from Jeremy Benjamin, a fund manager. Benjamin had posted what he now accepts as false allegations on the Motley Fool forum, www.fool.co.uk under the pseudonym "analyser71".

In a statement made to The High Court the postings were describeds "serious allegations of criminal and dishonest financial wrongdoing by Mr Smith and the claimant companies [and] a grave slur on Mr Smith's personal and professional integrity", The Guardian reports.

As well as paying damages, described as "substantial", Benjamin will pay the legal costs of Smith's and his firm, estimated at three times the amount of the settlemnt

Benjamin was unmasked by a court order compelling Motley Fool to reveal the details it held on the poster known as "analyser71". The IP address associated with his postings was then traced back to a computer at his then employers, Kyte Fund Management.

Forty-nine other computers viewed the postings before they were removed by site administrators. Oliver Smith, a member of Terry Smith's legal team at Rosenblatt, told The Guardian:

"Forty nine may not seem to be a large number, but they could have been 49 influential people in financial services and they could have copied the messages and sent them to other influential people."

Motley Fool has issued a statement highlighting that its terms and conditions of use remind the site's registered users of their responsibilities under law, and stressed that using a nickname to post provided no protection from the law.

George Row, producer of the online community section of Motley Fool in the UK, said that the case was "a timely reminder to all of us that the law on defamation applies as much on the internet as it does elsewhere...In cases such as this - and in any case when someone makes a formal complaint - we pride ourselves on reacting quickly and in accordance with the terms and conditions of our website."

Mark Weston, technology law specialist at MAB Law, says the ruling was another link in the chain of judicial authority saying that you cannot be anonymous. He likened this element of the ruling to cases where ISPs have been forced to reveal the identity of filesharers to the British Phonographic Industry (BPI).

"It should make posters more careful. The supposed anonymity online is only temporary," he told us. "Just as in the offline world, as long as someone knows who you are, they can be forced to reveal your identity."

The Guardian's story is here. ®

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