The internet or the information superhighway, has to be one of the greatest technological advances in our modern world. We use it so much nowadays that it is almost impossible to remember how we managed without it. Our work, our communications with each other, our recreation and our business affairs, are all heavily reliant on the internet. The internet is still relatively young. When it first started in the 1990’s, no one could envisage how significant it would become. It was also impossible at the time to predict how it would evolve and what issues might arise because of it.
The internet has given rise to a new phenomenon, social media. The benefits of social media are many. It enables us to connect with each other making the World a much smaller place. Gone are the days of losing touch with friends or colleagues when you left a location. Gone are the days of being unable to connect with family or friends who might live abroad. Social media is not just an excellent way to connect with each other, but it also offers us fast and instant entertainment for filling those moments when we are sat on public transport or sitting waiting for an appointment.
As much as the internet has given us these advantages, it has also led to a plethora of ethical and legal questions. Many of these concern an individual’s privacy and the extent to which we are able to protect people online. The Government is aware of the dangers of social media and has started to introduce new laws to respond to this. In May this year a new paper was brought in for consideration, proposing to penalise social media and technology organisations for failing to protect users from harmful content. The Government is also considering establishing a watchdog organisation to police this. The paper mentions the case of a fourteen-year-old girl, Molly Russell, who killed herself after she had viewed online material concerning depression and suicide on social media. Now, all Governments worldwide are discussing how best to control social media to prevent online abuse, to stop the spread of pornography, to protect children online and to prevent grooming.
One of the issues that governments are currently discussing is something known as doxing. I had very little understanding of this term until a few months ago. I naively thought that it sounded like some sort of dog castration. Joking aside, the real definition of doxing is, to search for and publish private or identifying information about a person on the internet, usually with malicious intent. This is quite a wide definition. Yet the phrase ‘malicious intent’ is key to doxing. It is the malicious intent that makes it illegal. For example: if information is shared from accounts that already publicly share that information then it is not illegal. If the information published is used with ethical standards, then it is not illegal. However, using information to blackmail someone or cause them harm is illegal, if malicious motives can be proven. To give a very simple analogy. If you are sending out an e-mail to several people at once and you inadvertently reveal an email address, by forgetting to BCC (blind carbon copy) it, you may have shared personal information, but it was not done deliberately. However, if you reveal where someone lives and tell people to seek them out to upset them, this is malicious intent.
Although doxing might appear to be a modern phenomenon it is becoming increasingly common as a means to harass and intimidate people. There are three laws which apply and protect any individual in the UK who has been unlawfully doxed and identified.
- The Protection From Harassment Act
- The Data Protection Act
- The Computer Misuse Act
The primary protection against doxing is the Protection from Harassment Act (1997)
The main points of the Act are that:
A person must not pursue a course of conduct;
(a)which amounts to harassment of another, and
(b)which he / she knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other.
The Data Protection Act states that even if a person’s information is public, it does not therefore follow that anyone else can redistribute it without your consent especially for malicious purposes. For example: to get you harmed, or harassed or to lose your job, or damage your reputation.
The Computer Misuse Act also applies to doxing, when an individual uses their computer for malicious purposes.
The Crown Prosecution Service has recently updated its social media guidelines for prosecutors and law enforcement to include doxing. These guidelines are comprehensive and worth reading to understand all its complexities.
There was a case in 2017 when a gentleman named as Rhodri Philipps, also Viscount St Davids, was convicted of sending menacing messages after he offered £5000 on Facebook for anyone who would in his words, ‘accidentally’ run-over the Anti-Brexit campaigner, Gina Miller. He used racist pejorative terms to describe her. He was also accused of inciting violence against an immigrant father of eight. Philipps was given a twelve-week prison sentence.
There is no doubt that trolling is a serious offence. Trolls are bullies who hide behind a computer and spout out nasty and offensive messages. Yet doxing can be equally serious and sinister. I know of people who have experienced doxing and tell me that it is as serious a crime as stalking and is terrifying for the victim; leaving them powerless and exposed. Fortunately, doxing is against the Terms of Service of almost every web platform. It is vital to report the doxing to the platform so that they can suspend the person’s account or force them to take the post down or delete the post in question. Furthermore, if someone encourages someone else to harass you online then this may be considered to be incitement. Some types of incitement are illegal. This may also be illegal even if no violence was carried out: this is termed an inchoate offence.
If you are or have been doxed or harassed online then The Citizens’ Advice Bureau has produced an excellent tool to help you determine your next course of action. https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/law-and-courts/discrimination/taking-action-about-discrimination/taking-action-about-harassment/