Social media

Facebook ordered to identify cyberbullies who harassed mom

June 8, 2012 at 12:52 PM ET

msnbc.com via Bains Cohen LLP /

A mom who was trolled mercilessly on Facebook for months and months because of her comments about a TV show contestant has won a court order in Britain ordering Facebook to share the email and Internet addresses of the cyberbullies behind the campaign of cruelty.

Nicola Brookes had gone on the social network to post a supportive remark last fall after Frankie Cocozza, an "X-Factor" contestant, was thrown off the British equivalent of "American Idol" for boasting about drug use. Brookes, whose daughter is a fan of the show, was looking at a Facebook page about Cocozza and saw all the nasty comments posted to him.

"Keep your chin up, Frankie," she said in her Facebook post. "They'll move onto someone else soon."

Some of them did move on, and began aiming their nasty comments at the unsuspecting mom. The Internet trolls created a fake Facebook page under Brookes' name, used the page to solicit young girls for drugs and sex, then accused Brookes of being a pedophile. Facebook removed the fake page, but the the trolls continued to harass Brookes via the social network, even posting of her Brighton home address and a photo of her daughter, she contends.

The law firm of Bains Cohen Solicitors took Brookes' case on a pro bono basis, filing suit in Britain's High Court, seeking to make Facebook turn over the Internet addresses of the cyberbullies hiding behind various identities.

"The trolls will constantly be on there, making comments about Nicola ... and then they say things on other blogs elsewhere and on their own Facebook pages. We have to take steps to get the identity of these trolls," attorney Rupinder Bains told msnbc.com last month when the suit was filed.

Now the court has ruled in Brookes' favor. Facebook said it will comply with the order once it is received, as it does when there are legally approved orders for information such as IP addresses and subscriber information.

"There is no place for harassment on Facebook, but unfortunately a small minority of malicious individuals exist online, just as they do offline," a Facebook spokesperson told msnbc.com Friday. "We have built a robust reporting infrastructure that deals with harassment as a priority and we have teams that investigate and take action quickly."

Britain's High Court ruling is "unusual," and "not one that would likely happen in the U.S.," said Jeffrey Hermes, director of the Citizen Media Law Project and fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, told msnbc.com. That's because there are tougher standards to prove defamation under U.S. law than British law, he said.

While the trolls are likely British, if they are from the U.S., "it's not clear whether a valid defamation claim under U.K. law would be sufficient basis in the U.S." for their Internet addresses to be released, he said.

"Much of what is being considered as defamatory in the U.K. would probably be considered opinion or non-defamatory in the U.S. because of the First Amendment."

Attorney Bains told msnbc.com Friday the disclosure order will be served on Facebook next week, "and then they usually have 4 to 6 weeks ...to collate their data and send it on to us."

The final result? "Depending on the outcome of this information, we will be able to determine if we can locate the trolls and if we can, a private prosecution will be launched against them for harassment," Bains said.

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