15 May 2012
Survey reveals urgent action is needed against online abuse
Specialist Internet defamation solicitors Bains Cohen LLP and legal PR consultancy Byfield have teamed up to promote the results of a major survey which looks at online abuse and to support the first private prosecution brought by an individual against Internet trolls.
Bains Cohen and Byfield Consultancy are both representing Nicola Brookes on a pro bono basis to provide legal and PR support. She is unable to afford legal representation and legal aid is not available for civil cases of this nature.
The national survey, commissioned by Bains Cohen and undertaken by a market research company, canvassed the views of just over 1,000 men and women aged between 16-40 years of age to investigate the prevalence of malicious communication by electronic media.
The results show that online abuse is rife but ordinary members of the public do not take action as they are not confident in the abilities of the police to treat the matter seriously:
- Over half of respondents (53%) said that they had received some form of abusive electronic communication;
- Only 14 % of respondents who had received abusive electronic communications reported the matter to the police;
- A staggering figure of almost 80% felt the police would not take their matter seriously – precisely what was found in Nicola Brookes’ case (see below);
- Men are subject to receiving as much malicious electronic communication as women;
- The most common method of sending malicious communications is by e-mail, with social media coming in second;
- For 16-19 year olds, the most common method of receiving Internet abuse is via social media; and
- For the majority of recipients of such malicious communication, the sender is unknown to them.
Rupinder Bains, managing partner of Bains Cohen, said: “Our survey clearly shows that the police need training and resources to bring justice to this minefield arena. The anonymity of the web is handicapping justice; lack of funding is handicapping justice, as is a lack of knowledge.
“If a victim happens to be a celebrity, a sportsperson or an MP, it is surprising how the police are able to obtain the poster’s details and prosecutions are commenced. However, it is this very disparity that needs to be bridged. Knowing that the police and the state have powers – powers to investigate, arrest and detain, powers to prosecute and imprison – will lead to an automatic reduction in the number of abusive postings.”
The case of Nicola Brookes
In November last year, Bains Cohen was approached by Nicola Brookes, a single mother who suffers from chronic Crohn’s disease. Nicola found herself on the receiving end of extremely abusive comments on Facebook, after sending a supporting comment to Frankie Coccoza when he left the X Factor last year.
The abuse was vile and unwarranted to the extent that anonymous Internet trolls set up a fake Facebook profile account in Nicola’s name and image to post indecent comments and lure young girls. Nicola contacted the police and was informed that there was nothing that could actually be done.
Bains Cohen contacted Facebook on several occasions and the fake profile page that was set up in Ms Brookes’ name was successfully taken down. However, this was not the end of Nicola’s suffering. The abusive communications have now got to the stage of the trolls disclosing her personal address and making lewd comments towards her daughter.
Again the police were contacted – this time by the firm – and whilst the inspector agreed to meet with her, the most that came out of this meeting was the offer of panic alarms in her home. It was clear that, unfortunately, Nicola’s local police had no idea what to do.
Bains Cohen made the decision to act for Nicola on a pro bono basis to try and bring these trolls to justice. The current stage in the proceedings involves an application being made for an injunction from the High Court, known as a Norwich Pharmacal order to compel Facebook to release the IP addresses of the posters of this information, in the hope of tracing the identity of the trolls.
However, to achieve this, funding needs to be arranged – whilst legal representation is pro bono, third-party fees such as court fees need to be met. In order to progress Nicola’s case, Bains Cohen will be funding the costs of the initial court fees. A fundraising effort is also underway to fund further court fees and associated costs and to help other victims of online abuse.
Mr Bains said: “Lawyers should not have to do this. A criminal offence has been committed and the police should be involved hunting down these perpetrators, but no such assistance is provided. There is a clear anomaly in the law and the way in which Internet abuse is treated and investigated by the police depending on whether the victim is in the public eye or an ordinary member of the public, like Nicola.
“We took this case in the hope of achieving justice for Nicola and effecting a change in the system that will help other victims like her.”
Bains Cohen and Byfield Consultancy have now launched a campaign to support Nicola Brookes’ case and stamp out internet abuse. The aims of the campaign are to:
- Highlight the results of the Bains Cohen survey on online abuse to show how widespread the issue is;
- Raise awareness of, and support for, Nicola’s case through a media campaign;
- Lobby Parliament to effect change in how the police deal with Internet abuse;
- Garner support from charities who deal with victims of his type of abuse and from celebrities who have suffered at the hands of Internet trolls;
- Raise funds to pay for Nicola’s court costs (an initial payment of c.£1,600-£3,000) and to set up a foundation to support victims of online abuse;
- Promote Nicola’s legal action as the first private prosecution against Internet trolls and as a test case to effect a change in how these cases are prosecuted in future; and
- Highlight the responsibility of Internet service providers and social media networking sites in dealing with reports of online abuse
Support for the campaign
Lynda Bellingham (actress and campaigner): “We talk today about free speech as a positive thing. So it should be, but for every positive there is always a negative and tragically evil thrives when the good stay silent.
“The Internet has provided a feeding ground for all the worst elements of human nature to grow. Envy, greed and insecurity breed a new set of human kind who thrive on the anonymity provided by the internet. They rear their heads in many forms, many of them choosing the identity of a blogger. They hide behind their blogs like the cowards they are.
“We as a worldwide community must stand up to these individuals and show them abuse of any kind will not be tolerated.”
Sharon Evans, president of Kids Task Force: “Kids Taskforce is warning adults that they too can become victims of online bullies following the results of Bains Cohen’s survey. We work with experts and the emergency services to create safety learning programmes that help children to handle risks online. This new research highlights the need for adults to be aware of the risks too and to take action to protect themselves.”
Professor Carsten Maple from the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research at the University of Bedfordshire: “Recent research has revealed the significant impact that cyberstalking has on its victims, a significant number of whom exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. I can only imagine the stress the Nicola’s experience put her under.
“The ease by which an attacker can contact a victim, and remain anonymous has unfortunately led to a significant increase in the prevalence of cyberstalking. We need to ensure that these people are stopped by ensuring that law enforcement agencies support victims and are equipped with the tools and knowledge to bring about successful prosecutions.”
To make a donation to Nicola’s fund:
Ref: Nicola Brooks
Bains Cohen LLP
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