Article on the unmasking of Internet trolls
A woman, Nicola Brooks, who, over a 9 month period, was harassed by internet “trolls” who accused her of being, amongst other things, a child abuser, a drug dealer, a stalker and a prostitute, recently won a ruling from the English Court that ordered Facebook, a Californian company, to disclose the names and addresses of those trolls who had abused her.
Internet users often seem prepared to say things online that they would not repeat to a person’s face or any other form of communication, most obviously because of the apparent anonymity offered by the internet. Anyone who thinks that the internet is truly an anonymous medium should think again – and also think long and hard before posting any statement which could be defamatory or amount to harassment. Anyone who has had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of internet abuse now, potentially, have the tools available to unmask their attacker and to open the way to bringing either a civil claim (for compensation) or a prosecution.
Ms Brooks used a long-established law to require Facebook to disclose the names of the trolls. To convince the Court to rule in her favour, she needed to prove that:
- A wrong had been committed;
- Disclosure of information was required in order to be able to pursue civil or criminal action against the trolls.
- Facebook (the publisher of the statements) is not a “mere witness”, but has facilitated the wrongdoing (even if innocently); and
- It is in the interests of justice that an Order disclosing the identities of the trolls is made.
In this case, the Court agreed that all four grounds were met. Facebook did not object to the Order being made, but required the matter to go to Court in order to protect itself from any claim from the trolls that, in disclosing their identities without a Court Order, it had breached data information laws. The Court ordered that the identities of the trolls be disclosed by Facebook.
That Order is only the start of Ms Brooks’ battle to obtain a remedy against the trolls. Various options are available to anyone unfortunate enough to suffer in this way. The Police/CPS may be persuaded to prosecute, using the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The Police declined to prosecute in Ms Brooks’ case however, leaving her to pursue a private prosecution, a rarely used remedy, in order to seek a criminal conviction. The main civil remedy is a claim for defamation. This leads to compensation, rather than a criminal penalty. This has a far lower standard of proof than for a criminal prosecution. A statement is presumed to be defamatory unless the Defendant (the troll) can prove its truth – something that is probably unlikely.
Please contact Clare Jones if you would like more information about this issue or any litigation issue.