A successful claim against an anonymous blogger provides guidance on taking action against unidentifiable defendants.
The High Court recently awarded a claimant £70,000 in a claim for libel and harassment against an unidentified blogger. The Court also ordered Google to remove the website hosting the blog under section 13 of the Defamation Act in one of the first reported orders of its kind.
The claimant, a senior politics lecturer and published author, had been the subject of a sustained campaign by an unknown party, who falsely accused him of committing serious sexual offences. The allegations were made in a series of blog posts posted from an end-to-end encrypted email service based in Switzerland. The defendant promoted the blog posts by using the #MeToo hashtag on Twitter and also tagged several leading journalists and academics.
Hearing against unknown defendant
The Court first had to consider whether the hearing should proceed in the absence of the defendant (who had not filed a defence or engaged with the claim at all).
The Court held that, given the lengths to which the defendant had gone to obscure his (or her) identity, and his course of conduct to date, it was highly unlikely that his real identity would be discovered. The judge was satisfied nonetheless that the claimant had taken all practical steps possible to notify the defendant of the claim and the hearing, and allowed the hearing to proceed.
The claimant was awarded the significant sum of £70,000 to vindicate his reputation and to compensate for the distress he had suffered as a result both of the libels themselves and the campaign of harassment.
In assessing damages, the Court applied the established principle that to the extent that there were any gaps in the evidence, the defendant should not benefit from his failure to engage or provide disclosure.
The judge accepted that the allegations of rape and sexual assault, which were not qualified in any way, were extremely grave. Weight was also given to the permanence of online publications in which such information can be easily disseminated even if deleted. The judge highlighted the defendant's use of the #MeToo hashtag as being likely to lead to further widespread publication. The judge therefore inferred that the extent of publication of the posts reached the high hundreds to low thousands. He also found the "grapevine effect" – that is, the tendency for scurrilous allegations to spread rapidly beyond their initial audience – to be highly material when assessing damages
The judge was persuaded by the claimant's "direct and compelling evidence" of the devastating impact the allegations had had on his life.
As well as the substantial award of damages, the defendant was ordered to stop his campaign of defamation and harassment, and to pay the claimant's legal costs.
Take down order against Google
Section 13 of the Defamation Act 2013 empowers the Court to order the operators of websites on which defamatory statements have been posted to remove the statements. Google had informed the claimant that it would only remove the blog posts following a court order. The Court held that, given the defendant's failure to engage with the proceedings to date, it was highly unlikely that he would comply with the Court's order to remove the material. Making an order under section 13 requiring Google to remove the blog was therefore justified and wholly appropriate.
Tackling online defamation and harassment can be challenging, especially where the malicious party has gone to great lengths to hide his or her identity. Social media and other online platforms are often reluctant to assist without the complainant first obtaining a court order.
This judgment demonstrates that the courts are willing to assist claimants in such circumstances, and to exercise their powers to compel hosting platforms to remove content.
The full judgment is here: Blackedge v Persons Unknown  EWHC 1994 (QB)