The case of Phipps v Britton-unmasking internet trolls
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What to do if you need to uncover the identity of your internet troll
Sometimes internet trolls and online harassers will go out of their way to conceal their real identity, a situation, which might leave you, as the victim, feeling highly vulnerable and hopeless.
Unmasking the identity of internet trolls is possible in most cases. Often, it is a matter of perseverance, creativity technical and legal knowledge that permit the unmasking of the identity of internet trolls, who live amongst us. For example, in the case of Phipps v Britton, Cohen Davis won our client an apology and substantial damages from a web developer and his company Origin Design Ltd after they defamed, harassed and cyberbullied our client in a series of websites they created about him.
The main harasser in this case was a web developer who exercised his knowledge of SEO to cause the maximum damage to his own customers, whilst constantly taking steps to conceal his own true identity. This was a case where the victim felt he had been blackmailed on the internet by the web developer because the web developer believed that there was an outstanding debt owed to him and to his company by the customer.
Because unmasking internet trolls is often the biggest challenge in these types of cases, this case was no exception and a great deal of effort and creativity had to be gathered in order to unmask the identity of Mr Britton and his web development firm. The apology was given in an open court and read before His Honour Judge Moloney QC.
Unmasking internet troll identities, seems like an easy task for the police. This is particularly true if the internet troll has also committed a criminal offence, and particularly a criminal offence which might place the victim at risk. Unfortunately unmasking the true identification of internet harassers who post abusive and defamatory content online and who use an anonymous identity to defame you or your business, is often a hugely challenging task and one that continues to be a global problem for victims of online abuse.
The police in most jurisdictions will typically be reluctant to provide the support and help that victim need. The reason for this is commonly because the police might consider the matter as a civil matter rather than a criminal matter. Furthermore the reluctance of the police may be because they do not usually have the appropriate resources to undertake such tasks, which could turn into an international operation.
The police are in most cases unable to investigate complaints of online harassment, defamation, or breach of privacy as they simply lack the technical expertise and human and financial resources to track down the true identity of those internet harassers who are responsible for such abusive content. Campaigns of online abuse, harassment and defamation will typically include one or more foreign jurisdictions and involve an author or publisher of abusive content, who will more often than not take deliberate measures to avoid his or her detection. To stand any chance at all of identifying such internet abusers yourself, you would need to have superior technical knowledge of the internet and a practical and balanced understanding of the multi-jurisdictional laws that might apply.
The case of Phipps v Britton demonstrates some of the challenges you might face with your attempts of unmasking internet trolls. Following a dispute over £150 or so, the web developer, who owned the marketing and web design company Origin Design, took it upon himself to seek retribution by creating an online campaign of defamation, abuse and harassment against his former trusting customer.
This was effectively a case where the victim felt he had been blackmailed by the web developer on the internet so that he settled a debt after the web developer filed a claim in the County court at around the same time as he had created the intimidating websites against his own client. Using his in-depth knowledge and understanding of computing, SEO and of the internet, the web developer who founded Origin Design Limited in 2000, created a permanent record of the extremely defamatory and abusive content about his former customer, believing he would never get caught.
The content manifested itself in many ways including libellous comments on review websites and online discussion forums and the creation of a dedicated website with his victim’s name in the URL. This harassing website contained supposed admissions from the customer that the customer was a sex offender. The web developer then made sure to include the customer’s home address so as to expose him to misguided personal physical attacks. To then achieve the highest possible harm to his customer’s reputation, the web developer put into practice his professional knowledge and expertise in Search Engine Optimisation (“SEO”) to direct as many internet users as possible to the fake website.
To avoid detection, the web developer purchased the website’s domain name using false credentials. He also submitted false information to the hosting company, GoDaddy. To make it even harder for his true identity to be detected, he paid for GoDaddy’s services using a PayPal account rather his credit card in a deliberate attempt to try to avoid leaving any ‘digital footprints’ of his involvement. Very early on in our investigations into this matter, we realised that we were dealing with someone who had a deep and thorough understanding of the internet.
The more evidence you can obtain of the true identity of your online harasser, the better. You might never be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt who the harasser is, not at this stage of the process at least. But this does not matter very much because under the civil court rules, you only need to prove the identity of your harasser on the balance of probabilities.
In other words, all you need to prove is that it is more than 50% likely that the individual behind an anonymous profile is a particular person. Initially, finding watertight evidence against the web developer seemed like a near impossible task. Obtaining IP addresses is helpful in directing an investigation, but such addresses can only point as far as a property address and/or household, or to a mobile telephone provide and very rarely to a specific individual.
We did manage to trace the offending IP address to Origin Design offices. We asked the police to arrest the web developer, but in his police interview he denied personal involvement and claimed the offender could be any one of his employees. So, even after we obtained and shared with the Metropolitan Police, Domain Name Server (“DNS”) evidence linking the defamatory website to the web developer’s company, the web developer was still able to deny responsibility for the online assault by claiming that the defamatory website had been created by one of the company’s employees.
The police had no choice but to release the web developer on bail, which forced our team to search for further evidence to link the web designer directly to the defamatory websites. Unlike the civil court rules, where you only need to prove the identity of a person on balance of probability, when it comes to the criminal courts, you have to prove your case beyond reasonable doubt. Any doubt about the identity of the person who are attempting to unmask, will result in your suspect walking free.
You can obtain disclosure from GoDaddy and from its sister company DomianByProxy if you need unmask internet trolls who use GoDaddy as a host or as registrar of a domain name which is used to harass you. The process if fairly simple, if you know how and affordable, if you work with the right US attorney. Faced with the challenge of having a stubborn internet harasser who is not prepared to admit his guilt until his identity is proven beyond reasonable doubt, we quickly issued subpoenas in the United States to order GoDaddy and PayPal to hand over every ounce of information they had on their user.
Whilst the web developer worked hard to avoid detection, our team was not going to allow him to get away with his unscrupulous conduct. The disclosure from GoDaddy came in really fast. It provided our team with some good leads but still fell short of proving beyond reasonable doubt the true identity of the internet troll who we were after. When you deal with the unmasking of internet trolls you do sometimes need some luck too.
And often, with persistent and perseverance luck comes. What ultimately enabled us to expose him as the author and publisher of the defamatory website, was a digital recording of a short telephone conversation between him and GoDaddy. With GoDaddy’s cooperation, we obtained an audio recording of a telephone conversation in which the web developer called GoDaddy to obtain customer support. In the recording, the web developer was heard confirming his account number and password. The password happened to be the first 4 digits of his date of birth.
If you persist and are willing and able to provide the police with evidence, you will be able, in most cases, to convince the police to take legal action against your online harasser. Armed with audio recordings, dates of birth, DNS records and other circumstantial evidence, we went back to the police who re-arrested our main suspect. He was subsequently charged with and convicted in the Crown Court of the harassment of his own customer. He was eventually handed a prison sentence, suspended for 12 months and ordered to pay his victim a sum on excess of £10,000, to cover the cost of our work in unmasking him.
Online trolling and harassment are both, civil and criminal wrongdoings. This means that if you engage in harassment through the internet, you can find yourself being convicted in a criminal court of criminal harassment and then, following your conviction, taken to a civil court to pay damages for harassment and for defamation. It will be difficult to defend a claim for defamation after you have been convicted of harassment in relation to the same false allegations.
Following his conviction in the criminal court, we issued civil proceedings against the web developer for defamation where again we secured for his victim substantial damages as well as a public apology and payment of his legal costs. Unmasking internet trolls could be extremely challenging but with persistence and perseverance, you should be successful as all that it takes is a slight oversight by the troll. Were it not for his altogether minimal oversights in covering his tracks and a dedicated and experienced team, this trolls’ identity might have never been revealed. The case also serves as an important reminder of the need by the victim to deal with online defamation and harassment fast. Although each case is different, time will always of the essence in investigating and unmasking the identities of unknown and anonymous internet users.