Nicola Brookes wins legal challenge against Facebook
On 21 May 2012 I wrote about how Nicola Brookes, a woman who posted a supportive comment on X-Factor Frankie Cocozza’s contestant page, received a barrage of online abuse from Facebook trolls.
The trolls, as well as publishing her address online on Mother’s Day this year, also set up a fake Facebook page in her name, which portrayed her as a paedophile and contained such comments as “I am a paedophile and I like underage girls and me and Frankie f**k them together”.
Incensed and upset by the failure of both the police and Facebook to take action over this, Nicola took her case to the High Court, and on 30 May was successful in obtaining a Norwich Pharmacal Order (NPO), which compels Facebook to hand over the details of those who have abused her online.
Although Facebook, as a US company does not have to comply, it has agreed to provide the details.
Speaking to Nicola the day after the order was granted, I asked her about her experience of this abuse, which began in November 2011 and continues to this day.
“I made a comment on Frankie Cocozza’s official ITV page and within hours my Facebook page was targeted and two days later a fake profile using my picture and name was set up.
“I used every option available to me, through the Facebook reporting system and reporting to the police, and both repeatedly failed me. Asking a law firm to step in and help was the only way I had left to get them to stop.
“Even now the trolls’ arrogance and confidence that they will not be found, exposed and held accountable is openly bragged about while still stalking me over the internet, taunting me, my legal team, my publicist, and anybody who comments or shows me support. I am still not able to use and speak on the internet freely.”
To its credit, not only did law firm Bains Cohen give Nicola legal advice, it offered to take her case pro bono.
Rupinder Bains, partner at Bains Cohen, who accompanied Nicola to the High Court on 30 May, commented: “Nicola’s case was so severe that we felt we had to help her. In comparison with famous people, for example an MP or a footballer, where online platforms tend to give up the information quite quickly, the resources don’t seem to be there for the general public and this is a disparity that we need to change.”
Although Nicola is pleased that the legal challenge has been successful, and is hopeful that the end result will be the prosecution of the people who have targeted her, the case has taken a heavy toll on her physical and emotional health.
Nicola suffers from Crohn’s disease and colitis, and, after surviving a serious operation in 2011, is now experiencing a flare up of both conditions due to stress. Some of the comments referenced both her health and her appearance, and have hurt her deeply.
She is also upset by comments that she is trying to make money out of her ordeal: “I cannot pay the legal fees for my case because I cannot work due to my health issues.
“This does not mean that I am trying to make money out of what has happened to me: I just want this kind of online abuse to stop so everybody can use social networking sites safely and free from abuse.”
Meanwhile, over the last six months since her nightmare began, Nicola has become much more aware of the extent of online abuse. She has been contacted by other people with heart breaking stories who have had the same experience and, in some instances, been targeted by the same trolls.
Despite her health issues, Nicola is determined to see the case through. This is good news for the general public, particularly those with memorial pages for loved ones, who are routinely targeted.
Even as I write, Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington is suffering the same experience and has shut down her social networks while competing, and a member of the group CRINJ, Meredith Keeton, is trying to combat her own online abuse from an activist group called Rape is No Joke, by setting up her own page in rebuttal.
Rupinder comments: “Bullying and harassment is a crime and we don’t accept it in the workplace – we have also got to say that is not acceptable online – just because there is a veil of anonymity online it doesn’t mean it is any more acceptable. In the States there have been a number of suicides over these kind of issues and that is going to start happening here: we have to stop it before it gets to that stage”.
She also pointed out that many people, after trying the reporting mechanism on Facebook or going to the police and finding that little action is taken, do not realise what their legal options are. She advises reporting online abuse to the police as harassment of this type is a criminal offence.
‘This kind of online abuse is completely unacceptable and we need to put the groundwork in now – otherwise it will be very hard to rein in as too much damage will have been done. For me, this ruling is the start of this groundwork in that those who have hounded Nicola are about to be identified,” says Rupinder.
And, for those who are quickly deleting accounts, they should be aware that IP addresses can be tracked retrospectively even if the account has been deactivated. The days of the anonymous online abuser may be numbered at last.
You can show Nicola support on her Facebook page Trolls and Me.
Please watch this space for an outline of the legal position from Bains Cohen in the coming weeks.
NB: To clarify the use of the word ‘troll’: this has entered into the public lexicon and is generally understood to be an anonymous poster who either derails an online discussion by being provocative or who harasses and bullies people online.