U.K. police struggle to curb internet trolls despite tougher laws

Complaints of online attacks are soaring, but tougher laws and more police enforcement have not protected a British woman from death threats and cruel messages.

'It overwhelms you,' says victim after five years of attacks with no convictions

Nicola Brookes checks her mobile device for messages. She has dealt with online harassment for five years and is still fighting to have her trolls prosecuted for their alleged crimes. (Lucas Metz/CBC)

Sitting in a quiet Brighton pub, Nicola Brookes brushes back her hair, cautiously glancing down at her phone in anticipation of the next cruel message.

For five years, the 48-year-old says, she has experienced constant abuse from internet trolls who attack her on everything from her age to the way she looks.

She says that someone even stole her Facebook profile photo and personal information to create a fake profile that accuses her of being a pedophile.

As a result, she says she received death threats. 

"People were saying they would find me and cut me open," says Brookes. "People wanted to burn me alive because they thought I was a pedophile."

The harassment began in 2011, after Brookes commented on a Facebook post about the popular U.K. talent show The X Factor, telling a young contestant named Frankie Cocozza to ignore the hateful comments from the "scum" online after he chose to leave the show.
Peter Nunn went to prison because of threatening nature of his tweets. He considers himself a free-speech advocate and called his Twitter comments "noble." (Peter Nunn)

Within a few short days, the aggressive comments aimed at Brookes spread from the X Factor page to hundreds of other Facebook pages.

"There were some pages I flat-out refused to go on because of the stuff they were saying about me. It overwhelms you."

According to new figures from the U.K. Ministry of Justice, Brookes isn't alone. In fact, British police are struggling to cope with a growing number of crimes perpetrated on Facebook and Twitter.

There were more than 16,000 crime reports involving the two social media giants last year alone, according to statistics obtained by the U.K. Press Association under the Freedom of Information Act.

The numbers suggest the government is cracking down on internet trolls who maliciously abuse social media users. In 2014, there were 1,209 court rulings related to Section 127 of the Communications Act, as well as 694 people convicted under the similar Malicious Communications Act. 

Offences under the two acts can range from sending grossly offensive or menacing messages to persistently causing anxiety via an electronic network.

The U.K. has seen several high-profile trolling cases in the past few years. One of the most infamous involved Peter Nunn, a 34-year-old Bristol man, who was sentenced to 18 weeks behind bars after criticizing a social media campaign to replace Charles Darwin's face with Jane Austen's on the £10 bank note.

Nunn retweeted rape threats while at the same time tweeting his own comments about the women leading the campaign, British member of Parliament Stella Creasy and activist Caroline Criado-Perez.
Member of Parliament Mary Macleod (left to right), Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, MP Stella Creasy and activist Caroline Criado-Perez show a design for a £10 note featuring Jane Austen. Internet troll Peter Nunn has attacked Creasy and Criado-Perez for their advocacy of the design. (Reuters)

Nunn called feminists "witches," and his most infamous tweet described the "best way to rape a witch."

Nunn told CBC News that he regretted that "some of my tweets could have been seen as misogynistic," but added that he made the comments to defend his free speech. 

In order to preserve freedom of speech online, Nunn says the internet should be beyond the reach of the law.

"I think historically, the internet has done a really good job at policing itself," Nunn says.

Difficult to define

He also believes that online harassment is difficult to define. "I think all too often, people are too quick to kind of become a victim and say, 'Well, I'm being harassed.'"

Nunn says absolute free speech should exist online, and social media users should use the tools at their disposal to avoid harassment.

"On Twitter, you have a block button. If you come into contact with someone who you feel threatened or harassed by, you can block them."

A decade ago, someone like Nunn might not have been charged, considering there were only 143 convictions under Section 127 of the Communications Act in 2004. That number has increased greatly over just 10 years. 

Lillian Edwards, professor of internet law at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, says this rise in trolling convictions can be attributed to an increased awareness of online crime and not necessarily to the laws in place.

"Online harassment, online trolling, revenge porn, all these kind of things, people are more aware of it, they're reporting it more, they're not tolerating it as much," Edwards says.

Edwards says the increased awareness about online harassment can be compared to that of domestic violence. She says it doesn't mean that there is more of it now, just that it's being recognized more frequently as a crime.

No Canadian statistics

Unlike the U.K., Canada doesn't keep statistics about convictions related specifically to online harassment. According to Allen Mendelsohn, a specialist in Canadian internet law, Canada doesn't have specific laws aimed at combating online harassment, either, although it may in the future. 

"There have been attempts to enact such a law," says Mendelsohn. "That said, it doesn't mean these cases do not proceed. They proceed under existing laws."

The U.K.'s anti-harassment laws have created a wealth of complaints of criminal acts, making it difficult for the police to prosecute everyone. But the British government has shown its commitment to deterring trolls by increasing the maximum prison sentence from six months to two years. 

This hasn't had an impact, however, on cases like that of Brookes.

Facebook forced to open up

In 2012, before the explosion of reported Facebook-related crime, Brookes took legal action against her trolls, winning a landmark case against Facebook and forcing it to release information about the accounts involved.

She has submitted hundreds of pages of evidence to the police. However, not one of her attackers has been convicted. And the trolls still torment her.

The lack of action has made her question the police and government's handling of online harassment. "It raises serious questions about the justice system, and about the way police gather evidence, and the way they ignore evidence," says Brookes.

Mendelsohn says the problem is that the law is always several years behind the technology.

"As soon as you write a law that's sort of working on Facebook and Twitter harassment, there is going to be a new type of online harassment in five years — or even a month later."


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