Internet trolls and the law

The first time I had the word “troll” within the context of the internet, I had no idea what it meant. I found out the hard way, as most people have by now. Internet trolls can make our lives pretty miserable and can cost some people their only means of business advertising.

But what can you do about them? They are anonymous by definition, and police officers are usually just as powerless as you are when it comes to tracking down trolls and identifying them.

In addition, while trolls can be thoroughly unpleasant and sometimes incredibly hurtful, they often aren’t breaking any criminal laws.

Many have developed their pestering skills to perfection. The way they render people powerless and expose them to senseless hurt and insults – such as in the case of Leo Traynor who was viciously stalked by the 17-year-old son of a friend – can be impossible to accept as life as usual and then just forget about. So what do you do?

One option is to sue them in civil proceedings (and for example call them John Doe). That is complicated, and hard. It forces you to be as persistent as your troll. Another one is to trap them, but it only works if the troll is not particularly tech-savvy. You can read about both methods in this Forbes article about Leo Traynor and the case of Carla Franklin who forced Google to reveal who was tormenting him. (Read more here.) Two years later, she sued Chico Shon Moss.

There are a few web pages out there that claim that Mr Traynor made up the entire story. It does not actually matter whether he did or not because the trolling he described is very real. He is not the only person who undergoes this kind of abuse. I too have some experience with this kind of stuff and I am certainly not the only one. In another account, you can read about a man called Chris Andrews in real life, a politician who quit his party when unmasked as a Twitter troll.

Nicola Brookes is a woman in the British seaside town Brighton. She asked the court to force Facebook to reveal the identity of the anonymous trolls who tormented her for months, even suggesting she was actively involved in sexual child abuse as well as a drug dealer. The High Court ruled in her favour, a legal first (see also this EU report Cybercrime and Punishment- New Developments & Challenges by Sylvia Kierkegaard).

One of the trolls turned out to be police officer Lee Rimell. He was arrested, but not suspended, says a follow-up article in the Daily Mail and this BBC article. Apparently he worked out of Birmingham.

He received a serious written warning, according to this detailed article on the web site of Sophos. It shows you in detail what kind of horrific abuse Nicola Brookes was subjected to. Not that different from what Leo Traynor said happened to him.

Yelp trolls

Last year, a New York steakhouse took legal steps to force Yelp to identify who wrote a certain post on Yelp. The writer claimed to be a waiter habitually spitting into the food served at the steak house. The writer used the name of a real person who said he had nothing to do with it and apparently filed a police report about the matter. The steak house took Yelp to court in an attempt to track  down the real poster. (Read more here, here and here.)

Earlier, another company had taken a similar matter to the courts in Virginia, claiming defamation. These cases force the US courts to carry out a delicate legal balancing act. The Virginia Appeals Court initially ruled that Yelp had to reveal the identities of seven posters, but Yelp appealed against that decision (read more here, here and here). The Virginia Supreme Court heard the matter in October 2014.

I haven’t been able to find recent information on the internet about these cases so it’s not clear to me how either of them ended. As there is a great deal of debate about the validity of Yelp reviews and the company’s ability to manipulate reviews, the point may be moot.

 

Another mark against Uber

There are many misgivings regarding the app-based taxi company Uber. One of those is a belief that Uber’s databases will get hacked.

Apparently, they already did. Get hacked.

Uber found out four months after the fact and kept quiet about it for months afterward. Last Friday, it finally came clean. In the New York Post, you can read more about Uber getting hacked.

Uber has meanwhile started a lawsuit against the hacker, identifying him or her as John Doe. This is also how you can sometimes take action against anonymous internet trolls as the FindLaw blog explains.