Ever since the internet began there has been a minority of people out to abuse it. These cowardly, faceless people are known as ‘trolls’ and many of us will have experienced their wrath at some point in time. Generally, the abuse they dish out is quite tame and easily ignored. In a few cases they go too far. Way too far.
Such was the case with Nicola Brookes recently.
The 45 year old woman from Brighton was subjected to a torrent of abuse on Facebook over her support for an axed X Factor contestant, Frankie Cocozza. Brookes, who doesn’t even watch X Factor, was mentioned in messages about child abuse and many other unsavoury topics, all of which are completely untrue. And on Mother’s Day the cyber bullies published her home address online, an experience that must have proved terrifying for the single mother.
Miss Brookes then acted just as anyone else in that situation would – she reported the abuse to police – but they did not act on her behalf. Subsequently she then contacted lawyers and commenced legal action in order to get Facebook to reveal details about the anonymous trolls who were harassing her.
Last week she won a court order forcing the social networking site to reveal the IP addresses, names and email addresses of those who had abused her which should provide her enough information to be able to prosecute those responsible. Facebook have agreed to hand over the details within 6 weeks, though further digging may then be required if the offending Facebook accounts had been set up with fakes names and/or email accounts.
Though common sense, many people do not comprehend the seriousness of online defamation. Not only can it be extremely hurtful to those subjected to it, it can land the culprits in extremely hot water too.
Making a defamatory comment on the web is akin to publishing the same in a printed publication with each page view or web site ‘hit’ considered as a separate offence. Whilst this is covered by existing UK libel laws, and can carry some pretty devastating damages penalties for those so prosecuted, it can also be an extremely expensive type of case to bring before a court too. On the other side of the coin, web site owners may also have a great fear of being sued, even when allegedly defamatory material on their site is user generated.
Fortunately then, the government have put forward new proposals which will hopefully offer a balance between protecting victims and preventing false claims (some big businesses use the threat of legal action to get webmasters to remove valid commentary that they don’t like).
The new powers, which will be added to the already existing Defamation Bill, aim to make unmasking trolls a much quicker and less costly process. Web site owners who comply with the requests and disclose details of the authors of allegedly defamatory material on their sites will have a greater defence against being sued themselves.
As with any law it will be interesting to see how the theory is put into practice but hopefully this move will signal a rapid demise for internet trolls.