Legal first as High Court orders Facebook to reveal names, email addresses and IP’s of cyber bullies
A mother who was sent death threats by so-called internet ‘trolls’ has won a landmark legal case against Facebook.
Nicola Brookes was tormented for months by anonymous internet bullies after she left an innocent message of support for an X Factor contestant on the social networking site.
She went to police to make a complaint but claimed officers told her to go home.
Now she has won a legal order forcing Facebook to disclose the identities of the trolls. It is the first time an individual has won such an order and Miss Brookes, 45, hopes to pursue private prosecutions against those responsible for her months of ‘vicious and depraved’ abuse.
Charities said the High Court ruling sent a message to the cyber bullies that their anonymity can be stripped away, leaving them open to prosecution.
Campaigners warned that online bullying has become the ‘weapon of choice’ among children and teenagers, with police and prosecutors failing to keep pace with the changes in technology.
Miss Brookes’s ordeal began last November when her daughter told her that an X Factor contestant, Frankie Cocozza, had received hate mail on Facebook. Stung by the cruelty, the mother left a message on his Facebook page, saying simply: ‘Keep your chin up, Frankie, they’ll move on to someone else soon.’
Within minutes bullies on the site turned on her, writing vile abuse including ‘Your [sic] a desperate pedo b****’ and ‘Ur [sic] a ****ing dog’. More than 100 cruel messages were left in just 24 hours. Miss Brookes said: ‘Facebook users began deliberately targeting me, writing under my comment that I was a pedophile and hoping that I would die.’
Worse followed when an online bully set up a fake Facebook profile in Miss Brookes’ name, with her photo and personal email address, and used it to send explicit messages to thousands of children, some as young as nine.
Some messages falsely described her as a drug dealer, a prostitute and a paedophile and known child abuser, and others attempted to ‘befriend’ young girls.
On Mother’s Day this year, trolls published the single mother’s home address in Brighton.
Horrified, she reported the abuse to Facebook and the police, but said officers did nothing to help her. She said one officer told her she could leave a dossier of evidence ‘but we won’t read it’.
Frustrated by their response Miss Brookes contacted lawyers and began legal action to force Facebook to reveal details about her anonymous tormentors.
Last week the High Court granted an order compelling the site to disclose the bullies’ names, email addresses and their computers’ internet protocol (IP) addresses, which can be used to determine a computer’s location.
Miss Brookes said: ‘These abusers are not just random people who have nothing better to do with their time.
‘These are organised people who have been operating on Facebook for years.
‘I’m going for the strongest possible prosecution against these people. I want them exposed.’
Last month, a survey found that just over half of all internet users have received abuse online or by text message. Only a minority report the abuse to police as many believe it will not be taken seriously.
Prosecutions under the Malicious Communications Act, which makes it illegal to send grossly offensive messages, have increased three-fold since 2004. There were almost 900 such prosecutions last year but prosecutors accept that only a minority of trolls are brought to justice.
Miss Brookes has remained on Facebook despite the abuse and said she was determined not to be bullied into quitting the site.
Her legal action would have cost her up to £5,000 but her solicitors Bains Cohen agreed to take the case for free because of her horrific treatment. Lawyer Rupinder Bains said Facebook had not contested the action and had agreed to hand over the information within six weeks.
Four individuals were believed to have led the abuse against Miss Brookes and her lawyers will consider private prosecutions against them. If their Facebook accounts were set up using fake names and email addresses, lawyers will have to return to court and win similar orders against the trolls’ internet service providers, to get the bill-payers’ addresses.
Mr Bains said: ‘It should have been the police’s job to get these details from Facebook but they have completely failed in their responsibility to do that.’
Facebook said it reveals its users’ names and email addresses only if a court orders it to do so. A spokesman said: ‘There is no place for harassment on Facebook, but unfortunately a small minority of malicious individuals exist online, just as they do offline. We respect our legal obligations and work with law enforcement to ensure such people are brought to justice.’
Suzie Hayman, of Bullying UK, said: ‘Bullies hide behind the anonymity of the internet and they should not be able to do so. You can’t be anonymous if you say something hurtful in the office or the schoolyard and people need to learn you can’t be anonymous on the internet either.’
Sussex Police said they had asked Facebook to remove any abusive posts about Miss Brookes and insisted they were investigating the case.
A spokesman said: ‘We need to gather evidence to prove who the person is for a successful prosecution to take place.’