Internet bullying, can it be stopped?

9 July 2012

The topic of internet trolling has been in the news recently with a number of stories appearing in the headlines. 

The Conservative MP Louise Mensch was subjected to internet abuse by Frank Zimmerman who called her the ‘slut of twitter’ and made death threats against her children.   Mr Zimmerman has now been given a 26 week custodial sentence.

For those who do not know, an internet troll is someone who posts inflammatory and provocative comments on-line with a view to eliciting an emotional response.  The difficulty with taking action against an internet troll is that comments are very often posted anonymously and it can therefore be difficult to work out the identity of the perpetrator.

This is particularly the case as internet service providers do not generally disclose the identity of online perpetrators due to constraints imposed on them by the Data Protection Act 1998 (although they will do so if faced with a court order).

In a case which has been brought by a lady from Brighton called Nicola Brookes, the High Court has ordered Facebook to disclose the IP addresses of four alleged internet trolls so that they can be identified by their internet service providers.

Last November, Ms Brookes made a seemingly harmless comment on-line about an X Factor contestant which led to her being targeted by online bullies.  These bullies barraged Ms Brookes with abusive messages, on-line comments and death threats, setting up a false account on facebook in her name which sent paedophilic messages to users across the internet.

Ms Brookes instructed lawyers to go to Court and the lawyers obtained a Norwich Pharmacal Order against Facebook.  This is an order which can be made for the disclosure of information by an innocent third party which has information about unlawful conduct.  Ms Brookes now intends to bring a private prosecution against the perpetrators.

Ms Brookes secured free legal advice from her solicitors but the Norwich Pharmacal procedure is an expensive option for most victims of internet bullying. 

The procedure may not be necessary for much longer though.  The government has announced plans in the Defamation Bill which is currently going through Parliament to allow website operators and internet service providers to disclose names of on-line attackers who post abusive messages on-line. 

This would, in turn provide a defence for website operators and ISPs to any allegations made that comments posted on-line by third parties are defamatory. 

The abuse against Ms Brookes is apparently still continuing.  The ability to obtain Norwich Pharmacal Orders and the government proposals to enable the names of perpetrators to be disclosed must surely be a step in the right direction to ensure that internet abuse comes to an end.

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