Martine Rolls: Cowards hide behind cursors

It's not the first time I am saying the internet is a bit of a Wild West. A quick search through several international news websites shows me plenty of examples of how things can go terribly wrong.

Online spats can lead to smear campaigns, many cases have made headlines and some have even led to people ending up on councillors' couches, or worse.

Netsafe runs the website. This is aimed at teenagers plus parents, caregivers and teachers of teens. Needless to say, most cyberbullying is done by, as well as aimed at, schoolchildren, but that doesn't mean it ends there.

We've had our own cyberbullying cases in the Bay of Plenty, too, the most recent being the story of a Tauranga man who is accused of setting up an internet dating profile in his ex-partner's name, claiming she was available for sexual liaisons.

There have been some interesting developments though, through the efforts of a woman in the UK who has taken Facebook to court after she was badly abused on the internet.

A simple message she posted on Facebook in support of one of the X-Factor contestants prompted hundreds of abusive comments and death threats directed at her. Things went from awful to worse as a fake Facebook profile was set up in her name using her photo, that falsely portrayed her as a paedophile and drug dealer.

She reported the offending posts and fake account to Facebook and went to the police with evidence of the abuse. Not much happened, so she then engaged lawyers who took High Court action against Facebook. They ordered the internet giant to hand over the details of the computer address where the offensive messages came from.

The case was not against Facebook itself, but against this woman's anonymous tormentors. It was one of the first cases in which an individual has successfully taken legal action against Facebook to reveal the identities of cyberbullies. The information that had to be disclosed included the bullies' names, email addresses and their computers' internet protocol (IP) addresses.<inline type="recurring-inline" id="1003" align="outside" enforce-sites="no" />

Since last week, internet companies will be expected to agree to rules over how to deal with defamatory comments posted on their sites. To cut a long story short, websites can now be held responsible for vile messages posted by others on their sites or networks, unless they reveal the identities of the bullies.

Many of these online bullies are probably bullies elsewhere too, but anonymity and unrestrained freedom of course makes things far easier for those with nothing better to do.

Online bullies - also known as "trolls" - are active on every social network. Wikipedia tells us that in internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

Now that is something we sometimes see on this website. We have created a space where readers can exchange intelligent, informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information. We welcome well-informed remarks that are relevant to the article posted and often publish these in the newspaper.

We are genuinely interested in people's advice, opinion, criticism and unique insights into all that is going on in the Bay. Fact is, though, that there are people out there who take pleasure in regularly posting absolute rubbish.

We are not the comment police and, in most cases, it is great to see that if a discussion goes slightly off track, it moderates itself. But there are occasions when I have had to step in. In extreme cases, we can ban offenders from the site.

There have been a few tiffs, I have handed out warnings, and closed comments on a few stories, but the majority of comments have made interesting reading and that is what we do it for. I guess we just have to learn to live with - and sometimes deal with - the handful of misfits who try to ruin it for everyone else.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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