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 excess of £3,000 to obtain an internet disclosure order against a web host or an internet service provider 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 often, obtaining a disclosure order in relation to an internet troll is out of the reach of ordinary internet users. Often, the most vulnerable are those who cannot afford the legal costs. Does this sound like ‘internet democracy’?
Clearly there’s something wrong. There has to be an easier way, and the ability to obtain internet disclosure orders easily and cheaply has to be made available 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. In one case, the one involving the internet troll and web designer Paul Britton, a police officer from Hounslow police station and myself, we both started the process of trying to unmask the troll exactly at the same time, with the police officer taking the official route and me taking the quick one. The result was staggering. Within 10 days, my firm was able to hand over to the police enough evidence to have Paul Britton arrested for harassment. The police officer, on the other hand, informed me 6 months into Paul Britton’s criminal trial, that he had just received all the required authorisations to approach the Interpol so that the police can apply to a court in Arizona for a disclosure order against GoDaddy, the host of the harassing websites Paul Britton had created. All in all, it would have taken the police 10 months to obtain the disclosure, at the cost of around £10,000 to the tax payer, whilst it took my team 10 days to achieve the same at half of this amount.
You can read about the case of Paul Britton here Unmasking Internet Trolls.
I’m not saying it’s a grand conspiracy against the poor, but we have to examine the criminal justice system and it is within our power to make the process of obtaining online disclosure orders 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 an online 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.
Is the argument of “free speech” strong enough to prevent disclosure of the identity of online trolls? Listen to my radio interview on BBC Radio Four “World at One”