X-Factor, trolls and social networking

Author: Eddie Powell

A mother who was sent anonymous death threats on Facebook recently won her case to unmask the identity of her abusers. Ms Brooks was sent death threats and offensive messages within hours of posting her support for X-Factor contestant Frankie Cocozza after he was voted off the show. Anonymous accounts were set up and the abusers, or ‘trolls’ as they are known, sent over 100 messages within 24 hours.

Ms Brooks brought her action privately under the Malicious Communications Act 2004 after she was told by the police that they were powerless to act as they did not know who the abusers were. Facebook would not release the email addresses or identities of the account holders without an order compelling them to do so. After the judgment, Facebook will now hand over the information within six weeks, and the individuals believed to be behind the abuse may face private prosecution.

Internet trolls, or cyber-bullies as they are also known, are facing keener attention from the police and policymakers. In September 2011 Sean Duffy was jailed for posting abuse on a Facebook memorial page to a girl who had committed suicide, and the comedian Dom Jolly was forced to contact the police after obscene messages were sent to him about his children via Twitter. Police are also investigating racist and abusive comments posted on Twitter aimed at Ashley Cole and Ashley Young following England’s exit from Euro 2012.

Proposed changes to defamation laws, to be contained in the Defamation Bill, were recently debated in Parliament, with Justice Secretary Ken Clarke saying: “As the law stands, individuals can be the subject of scurrilous rumour and allegation on the web with little meaningful remedy against the person responsible.” The proposed changes will aim to preserve freedom of speech. Internet providers could, under the proposed Defamation Bill, avoid legal action if they provide the identity of the authors of the material on their website when requested by a complainant. This, the government hopes, will help to strike a balance between free speech on the internet and an individual’s right to swift protection if defamatory material is published.

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