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UK lawsuit could compel Facebook to reveal true identities of cyber-bullies, may have further online privacy implications

troll face.It all began with what seemed like an innocent post on the Facebook profile of a contestant in the UK talent show The X Factor, but it prompted an unpleasant round of weapons-grade trolling, resulting in a lawsuit to not only reveal the identities of the faceless bullies, but a campaign to amend legislation regarding online anonymity too.

In November last year, Louise Brookes wrote “keep your chin up, Frankie, they’ll move onto someone else soon” on X Factor contestant Frankie Cocozza’s Facebook page, in response to “abusive” comments being posted there.

This resulted in the trolls turning their attention to Brookes, and the insults instantly started to fly in her direction. It’s here that one of the key rules of the Internet was broken (number 14, actually), as she actively engaged the bullies, but soon discovered “trying to answer the trolls back didn’t work though I did try.”

Things quickly escalated, with Brookes saying “they started getting very personal, looking at my Facebook account, and talking about my appearance and my age.” A fake Facebook profile was setup using Brookes’ photo, and explicit messages were sent to the accounts of young girls in her name.

It’s also mentioned that Brookes’ home address was revealed, but no information on her Facebook account’s privacy settings have been stated.

She describes feeling “helpless” and says the “reaction and public comments directed towards me will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Lawsuit

The fake Facebook profile was subsequently removed, but Brookes’ appeals to local police on the matter were less successful, with a spokesperson telling The Telegraph that they “have looked at the material sent to us and made every effort to trace the person responsible … but this is notoriously difficult to prove.”

Law firm Bains Cohen has been enlisted to compel Facebook to provide the IP addresses of those making the offending posts, in an effort to unmask the bullies and allow Brookes to file a private lawsuit against them.

If successful, it would be the first of its type in the UK, and comes soon after the prosecution of a student for a racial attack on an MP via Twitter. Bains Cohen are using this to their advantage, saying the police take a more active approach to online harassment when it involves a well-known person.

To raise funds to cover court fees, PR firm Byfield Consultancy have also got involved, and — somewhat ironically given the source of the problems — a Facebook page called Trolls and Me, which highlights problematic legislation preventing police from investigating online harassment, has also been setup.

The Frankie factor

Brookes’ problems arose from a post made on 18-year old Frankie Cocozza’s Facebook page, an individual who has attracted considerable controversy since his appearance on the talent contest.

He also attracts a rabid fan following, primarily amongst teenage girls, and there’s no doubt 45-year old Brookes showing up on his Facebook page — regardless of her supportive message — made her standout as an easy target.

Trial implications

On the surface, this is all about bullying, but as her legal battle is hampered not only by costs, but also by the police being unable to discover the bullies identity, it’s also about online anonymity.

It’s surprising, but possibly only a matter of time, before the cause is linked to efforts to introduce extensive Internet monitoring systems in the UK, which will provide law enforcement with access to online activities through ISPs.

Although it’s Facebook who will have to supply the IP addresses and any other pertinent information here, Brookes’ success or failure in her efforts will set a precedent which could apply all over the Internet.

If her own lawsuit is successful, it could make some online bullies think twice in the future, however her efforts to give law enforcement more power when it comes to identifying people on the Internet, could be used to advance worrying laws determined to erode our online privacy.

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