Google: Is there an argument for remaining anonymous when trying to protect your reputation

How can you protect your reputation via anonymous vindication? Vindication sits at the very heart of a defamation claim.

Is there a place for anonymity in defamation proceedings, asks Hanna Basha.
Is there a place for anonymity in defamation proceedings, asks Hanna Basha.
One of the main reasons claimants sue in defamation is to prove to the world that the allegations published about them are false.  

Unless the parties can agree a settlement with the publication of an apology, vindication is achieved by a public trial.  

Until recently, claimants in defamation actions had an almost absolute right to trial by jury and vindicated their reputations by their peers sitting as jurors finding publicly in their favour.  

It is, therefore, more than slightly unusual that a claimant, willing to identify himself only as 'ABC', is bringing a claim against Google in the High Court in London.  

If not public vindication, what does the claimant hope to achieve? It is clear what he hopes to avoid: the well-known and often quoted ‘Streisand effect’.  

This refers to circumstances in which a claim brought to restrict the publication of information, even if successful, results in wider publication of the information.   

Bringing a claim in defamation attracts the risk of the media reporting the allegations that are the subject of the claim.  

Reporting of court proceedings is seen as fundamental to the principle of open justice and is protected in law. 

The ‘Streisand effect’ can be a consideration for individuals in defamation cases where there has been only limited media exposure of the allegations.

ABC’s case is an extreme example, and highly unusual, because neither Google nor the judge knows the identity of the claimant.  

This leaves the question, is there a place for anonymity in defamation proceedings?
In short: yes.  

Before this case, ZAM brought a claim in defamation and for misuse of private information over allegations that he had engaged in financial mismanagement and paedophilia.  

The case also engaged issues relating to blackmail and a breach of the claimant’s privacy rights.  

ZAM won with the court noting that there was no reason why an anonymity order could not be made in a defamation action.

Whilst anonymity in defamation proceedings is rare, it is becoming more common, not least because of the increasing overlap between claims for misuse of private information and claims in defamation.  

The court will consider anonymity in cases where there are elements of private or confidential information that it believes it is justifiable to protect.  

It will also consider granting anonymity in cases where publication is limited, such as defamation actions over employment references.  

Most importantly, however, the court will grant anonymity so as not to allow defamation proceedings or potential proceedings to become a blackmail threat.

Hanna Basha is partner at Payne Hicks Beach

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