When Nicola Brookes unsuccessfully complained to her local Police about “vicious and depraved” abuse she was receiving from internet “trolls” on Facebook she decided to take legal action.
Nicola, from Brighton, left supportive comments on a former X Factor’s contestant’s page. Following her comments internet trolls began targeting Nicola with abusive messages, which escalated to a fake Facebook profile being created in Nicola’s name, attacking her further with inappropriate and explicit messages coming from the fake account. The alleged response from Sussex Police was that they were unable to help her with the abuse as it would be impossible to prove who was responsible for it, but that they had told Facebook to remove anything offensive or abusive towards Nicola.
Without knowing the real identities of the cyber-bullies, Nicola sought a Norwich Pharmacal Order (“NPO”) against Facebook. The NPO dates back to 1974 from a case where the House of Lords held that “where an innocent third party had information relating to unlawful conduct, a court could compel them to assist the person suffering damage by giving them that information.”
Nicola made her application to the High Court and the judge ruled that Facebook must reveal the IP addresses, names and email addresses of the supposedly four internet trolls, which should help reveal their identities. Facebook did not oppose the application but might have been at risk of breaching data protection law if the information had been handed over voluntarily. The order must be served on Facebook in the US and if Facebook has sufficient information to identify the trolls, a claim or prosecution will be possible against the individuals.
The Police and Crown Prosecution Service have been able to obtain details of individuals from social networks previously. A Twitter user was sentenced to 56 days imprisonment for racially aggravated public disorder when he mocked footballer Fabrice Muamba after he collapsed at a game with a heart attack. However, this is thought to be the first ruling of its kind where a social network has been ordered to reveal the identities of cyber-bullies. This is a great improvement on the usual approach taken by social networks of simply removing abusive messages after the damage has already been done. With the rapid increase of social media, both in personal and work life, the risk of online bullying, harassment and defamation is far greater. If the matter is serious enough it is always worth considering whether an NPO will help in bringing a claim for damages against the bullies. If more NPOs are served on social networks, it may encourage them to rethink their terms and have stricter controls on registration to avoid fake accounts and make life harder for internet trolls.