Trolls be warned: Court ruling could unmask internet trolls everywhere

After a ruling in favor of a Facebook user harassed by internet trolls, the U.K. House of Commons is debating a law to pull away the anonymity that gives trolls their power.

After innocently posting a comment in favor of a contestant on the reality TV show X Factor, Nicola Brookes was the target of an all-too-familiar swarm of internet trolls looking to get a reaction out of her. They may have been too successful for their own good.

Brookes subsequently filed a request with a British court to force Facebook, where court documents allege that some users created a fake account in Brookes' name and began harassing not only her, but also attempted to "post indecent comments and lure young girls," to come forward with the identity of those attacking her. And she won. The court is now demanding that Facebook provide the names, email addresses and IP addresses of those behind the Facebook account. With their identifies revealed, Brookes will be free to pursue a private civil suit against her internet harrassers.

The ruling could have a lasting impact. The U.K.'s House of Commons is currently reviewing the proposed Defamation Bill, which could make the hunt for internet trolls all the more common

“Website operators are in principle liable as publishers for everything that appears on their sites, even though the content is often determined by users. But most operators are not in a position to know whether the material posted is defamatory or not and very often – faced with a complaint – they will immediately remove material.

“Our proposed approach will mean that website operators have a defence against libel as long as they comply with a procedure to help identify the authors of allegedly defamatory material.”

Facebook, to its credit, swiftly issued a statement to several news outlets, including InformationWeek and The Register, that was overall ambiguous, albeit implicitly supportive of Brookes.

Nothing is more important to us than the safety of the people that use our service. Unlike many other websites and forums Facebook has a real name culture, which provides greater accountability and a safer and more trusted environment.

We are clear that there is no place for bullying or harassment on Facebook and we respond aggressively to reports of potential abuse. We provide our users with the tools to report abuse on every page and the option to block people from having any further contact with them. Reports involving harassment are prioritised, reviewed by a trained team of reviewers and removed if they violate our terms.

However, while the request for information is being processed, the trolls appear to have continued doing what they do best. Brookes told BBC Radio 4 that the harrassment hasn't ceased since the ruling, even going so far as to blame Facebook's system for reporting abuse on the site.

“I went down every avenue I could, I followed all the correct procedures, but these people that deliberately troll and target other members who are using it correctly – they should be removed from the site," she told BBC Radio 4's Today show.

If the Defamation Bill passes, what's next? Will the 'internet troll' soon become an endangered species? Is it destined to become a relic of the early internet days that we joke about in the future?

If the gloves come off in the battle against internet trolling, it would have to be a highly regulated process. Cases as severe as this one undoubtedly deserve the treatment, but we wouldn't want others abusing the power. Will celebrities, athletes, and even bloggers be able to pull the curtain back on the commenters and social networkers who come after them? Even worse, could politicians make themselves immune to criticism by instilling the fear of legal action into those who would make anonymous online jokes at their expense? At that point, who will decide what's internet abuse and what's a lighthearted joke?

A lot is left to be answered here. Troll lightly.

--

More from the Network World blogs:

Revolutionizing the password

  

I can't fix everything – nor should I

 

Cutting Out The Middleman In TV

 

First World Problems: Complaining about Wi-Fi At 30K Feet

 

Apple's legislative agenda has 'improve substantially' under Tim Cook

 

10 Things you will not hear at Cisco Live this year

 

No new Apple TV for you, AirPlay Mirroring instead

 

Netflix goes to the edge of the Internet

 

Actual Windows RT tablet sees the light of day. Should anyone care?

Which carcass is worth more for Microsoft's vultures, RIM or Nokia?

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

IT Salary Survey: The results are in