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Online Abuse

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The problem of cyber bullying is incontrovertible, with at least three high-profile suicides in a short time. If anyone is still unclear about the devastation caused to victims and families, the video posted by Canadian teenager Amanda Todd is required viewing. Indeed it should be required viewing for parents, educators and policy makers.

The cyberbullying of teenagers is just one facet of online abuse, which can range from threats to defamation, harassment to stalking, grooming and breaches of privacy and data protection. There are also overlaps. The cyberbulling of children can involve harassment, threats, verbal abuse and defamation, or in the case of Amanda Todd, privacy and data-protection breaches later expanding to threats. The solutions are multifaceted. Much of the recent commentary points to education, educators and parents. While this is correct, it is only one aspect. One point missing from the current discussion is that is legally possible to find anonymous abusers. Victims and the police can apply to court for the disclosure of user details from relevant websites and service providers. These are frequently known as Norwich Pharmacal orders. Online abusers can face civil as well as criminal consequences, even if they are children or teenagers. Alan Shatter, the Irish Justice Minister, has called for victims to report these matters to the police. It goes without saying the police must properly follow up reports. It is clear from recent media commentary that the UK police are proactive in this area.

Much of this abuse occurs on social networking websites, but it does also occur via mobile telephones and smartphones. Some social networking sites provide "tools" or "reporting processes". However, many of them, and indeed other Web 2.0 websites, do not do all they could to deal with these issues. Even some of the largest social networks have been slower to implement reporting procedures for certain forms of abuse than should be the case. Some websites also have particular tools available which they use for certain activities, but are reluctant to extend to abuse victims.

But no matter how many "report buttons" there are on a given website, they are entirely useless without protocols, policies and procedures behind the scenes to follow through on reports that are made. A complaints procedure is meaningless unless there are enough people investigating abuse reports. It would be interesting to examine and compare the number of people employed in abuse investigation teams across various social networking websites. Should there be a minimum number of employees assigned per number of users of a social networking website? Or should there be a minimum number of employees per amount of abuse reports made? The turnover of such websites could easily absorb hiring more staff. Indeed, some are located in Ireland already. I am sure our economy would welcome more.

A further point arises regarding social networking and related websites. Some are happy to publish statistics about the level of reports and complaints received relating to copyright infringement. This appears commercially driven. There is significantly less "transparency" as regards the level of abuse reports and complaints made to social networking websites, and around how, and how quickly, these abuse reports are resolved.

As much as we are presently shocked by the dark side of internet abuse, cyberbullying and the terrible consequences, it may be that we would be further shocked at the scale of abuse been reported, when the facility is available to do so. That may be a useful line of pursuit for anyone who is officially concerned about this issue. It is also worth considering that whatever a website may say at first blush may not always be the whole picture.

We are now beginning to realise that, on occasion, social networking and other websites can not only be unhelpful but positively obstructive. They can also, on occasion, be positively aggressive and combative to victims of abuse. Attacking, or even financially ruining, a victim of abuse would be antisocial and evil. These are some of the less commented upon issues regarding online abuse and cyberbullying.

A version of this article was published in the Sunday Times.