As online abuse of celebrity, MPs and regular people reach nearly an epidemic level, the common misconception that free speech and online anonymity are one and the same must be challenged.
As Prosecutors in England and Wales say hate crime online must be taken as seriously as hate crime in everyday life, internet law expert and social media solicitor Yair Cohen, who regularly acts for celebrity who face abuse online, tells BBC Radio 4 World at One, why identification of suspects is crucial to combating anti-social behaviour online.
It costs in the region of £5,000 to obtain a disclosure order in the UK or in the USA (my law firm specialises in both). That’s just to try to find out someone’s identity. And it’s not an easy process either. Sure, wealthy individuals and large corporations can afford it, but it’s completely out of reach for ordinary citizens. Often these are the most vulnerable. Does this sound like ‘internet democracy’?
Clearly there’s something wrong. There has to be an easier way, and the option has to be made available and feasible to the police, and therefore to ordinary people. At the moment victims must fund these disclosure orders privately and– as I understand it, having spoken to a number of police officers in the know – the cost of obtaining disclosure orders privately is far lower than the cost to the police of obtaining the very same order. Perhaps the police need a way of getting these faster and at a lower cost, or they should be able to instruct private specialist law firms to get the orders for them quickly.
I’m not saying it’s a grand conspiracy against the poor, but we have to go through the justice system and it is within our power to make that process easier and more affordable. The police should be able to obtain these orders more easily, simply by presenting evidence to a judge, or a committee, and saying, “We have grounds to believe that a crime is being committed, and we would like to unmask this individual on the basis of this evidence”.
Just as they would go to the local magistrate and say, “We think that Joe Bloggs is being threatened here”, or “We suspect Joe Bloggs of committing a crime and we have grounds to believe this is the case”, present their evidence, and then ask, “Can we have a search warrant?” Granted – no problem. A disclosure order is simply the equivalent of a search warrant, but online. So why are we so resistant?
If we are seeking a disclosure order on someone based in the United States, as a private citizen we can get an ID on them in seven days. Meanwhile, the police will have to go through Interpol, and it could take six months, or longer. In contrast, if you’re driving your car and you break the law, or are under suspicion, a police officer can tell you to pull over and ask for your ID. If you refuse to identify yourself, it is a crime. You have an obligation to identify yourself.
Likewise, if you know the identity of an offender you will be expected to reveal that identity. In some cases, you could even be charged as an accessory or with perverting the course of justice if you don’t. Identity is a big thing when it comes to crime-solving, offline or online. We readily accept certain facts in the offline world, and yet we remain obstinate in our resistance to this important change online, despite the implications.
Listen to Yair Cohen full radio interview with BBC Radio Four “World at One”