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Questions on harassment

Common questions and answers about harassment and online harassment that our internet law experts lawyers regularly asked.

What is the difference between online and offline harassment

In terms of the law, online harassment and and harassment that occurs on the street are exactly the same. Just because someone isn't screaming at you to your face, it doesn't mean it is different. Online harassment is often more difficult to investigate

Can I get a public apology for harassment

An apology by someone who is harassing you is an important component for many victims of harassment which makes it slightly easier for them to move on with their lives. A statement of apology is often the key remedy in defamation cases but even with cases of harassment, it is something that the victim can demand to be put as part of any settlement or court order that is made against their harasser. Your harasser can make an 'offer of amends' by way of an apology and this would be in their favour if the case went to court. If your harasser refuse to agree to give you a public apology, despite accepting legal liability and admitting to have harassed you, you can make a Unilateral Statement in Open Court, where you can repeat, publicly the harasser's acceptance of responsibility and regret.

I am in the public eye and I have had rape and death threats but I do not know who they are from. The police asked me if I have a jilted ex. They couldn't understand that someone would send me a threat because they don't like my tweets. Why is this?

Answer: Unfortunately, the police need desperate training and education in this area. It is long overdue but you still need to report it to the police. Some pernicious harassers have learnt how to game the system and mask their IP address but it doesn't mean they cannot be found. We have been successful in locating harassers, despite the incredible lengths that they have gone to hide themselves, so Cohen Davis can help you. In the meantime though, document everything. Every single piece of information that makes you feel harassed and stressed is important evidence. Take this information to the police and tell them that you are being harassed. If it is more than one time, it falls under Harassment Laws and Malicious Communications. Make sure you have copies for yourself and again, be reassured that we may be able to help you a lot sooner than the police can.

My image has been stolen and attached to someone else's body and linked to porn sites. What can I do?

Answer: This is a criminal act and is known as Revenge Porn, even though you may not know who stole your image in the first place and superimposed it, tagged, shared and linked it to websites. It may feel out of control for you and we have no doubt about your devastation but please rest assured, we are certain that we can help you with a comprehensive clean up on the internet and we may be able to track the perpetrator down and make them accountable.

I gave a nude photograph to my girlfriend and she has posted it online. I have asked her to take it down but she said that it belonged to her now and she can do what she wants with it. Is this true?

Answer: No, it isn't true. The picture that you have taken of yourself belongs to you. Unless you have given your girlfriend a written contract to say that she now owns it, it is yours. Also, if she is posting your naked photograph online, this is regarded as revenge pornography and harassment. This particular crime could have her spending two years in prison. Call us for a confidential chat. We are sure that we can help you.

A lot of staying safe online articles are all about social media where you have submitted information about yourself. I am being harassed and it is not social media related. Where do I go for help?

Answer: We can help you. We have helped numerous cases where it isn't social media related. One of our clients wasn't on any social networking site and had no information about herself online previously. Her harasser went to great lengths to harass her online, despite there being nothing readily available to him. He travelled all the World and thought he was hiding behind the internet. We found him and made him accountable. If you are experiencing non-social media related online harassment, get in touch with us now. I am sure we can help you.

How do I deal with an anonymous harasser?

Answer: Don't delete anything and document everything. Screenshot and log every bit of evidence. Some pernicious harassers that are persistent are people that have learnt how to game the system maybe (not always) and they use language that tweets and deletes and masks their IP address and they vaguely stay online on platforms. This does not mean that they are immune from being caught. Document and report everything. We have tips in our recent articles on how to do that but call us if you want to talk to someone about what else you can do legally.

Does it have to be threatening to constitute online harassment?

Answer: No, it doesn’t have to be threatening. It just needs to cause alarm or distress to the victim. Sometimes, if the victim knows that there is something out there on the internet, that is enough. Just to know it is there could be sufficient to be harassment.

The online abuse I am getting is increasing. What shall I do?.

Answer: Don’t delete anything, save everything, screenshot everything, date everything, get everything down, don’t delete or dismiss anything and one important thing to mention is don’t be ashamed to tell anyone. Try and think that this does not come from a credible source. Don't read it, just document it and report it. It’s all evidence. It may feel like you are not doing anything right now but it is important for when you take it further legally to have everything in a folder, copied twice. One folder should be taken to the police. Leave the online harassment evidence with them and say, ‘This is harassment', even though they may tell you it is a civil matter. Keep copies for yourself, as the police may keep them for a long time. Or lose them, as has been known.

Is it illegal to impersonate someone online?

Answer: It depends on the nature of the impersonation online. The police will tell you that it is not a crime by itself but if that online impersonation includes anything that is causing you anxiety and it is repeated, it is harassment. It is a police matter if the online impersonation is being used to obtain money, services or goods and goes under fraud. We hear of police turning people away if it is an online offence. They may tell you that it is a civil matter. Very often, online impersonation accompanies other activities which is classed as online harassment which is a criminal offence and a civil wrongdoing. Don't be fobbed off. Document everything, leave it with the police and tell them it is harassment. Make a copy for yourself. We can help you. Call Cohen Davis to discuss this.

My ex girlfriend is constantly sending me emails, texts to my phone and messages via social media, is this online harassment?

Answer: Well, it depends on how it is making you feel. If you feel that she is harassing you and you feel distressed and anxious about it and have told her to stop, then it is harassment. If the incidents are all related and close together and you feel oppressed by them (they don't have to be threatening), then harassment is occurring. If you are not distressed by them, then I would just ignore them and hopefully, she will eventually give up. If she doesn't and they start to cause you distress, then contact the police with all evidence. Or if you want to take it down the civil court route, then contact us.

Why are the police telling me that online harassment isn't something they deal with?

Answer: It is very unfortunate that the police are still telling people that there is nothing the police can do about online harassment. Do not accept this because it is a Criminal Offence. Sometimes, we send people back to the police station 4 or 5 times and tell them to take a file of evidence with them (document everything that you can and put it all in a folder: emails, screenshots, text messages, website addresses, dates of when things happened, contact details of who you think it is and anything else that supports your case. Also, it is a good idea to copy all of this evidence for your own copy). Then, leave it with the police or with the person who minds the front desk, who often, by the way, isn’t a police officer. Tell them that there is an offence of harassment which is being committed. Do not report it to Crimestopper online. We advise you to instead find a police station that is open (there aren’t many of them left), insist that the police register a formal complaint and leave the folder with the evidence of the harassment there and then. When the person that sits on the reception says there is nothing they can do about it or that what you call harassment is only a civil matter which has got nothing with the police, the best thing to do is leave the folder with them and say, ‘Here is a folder. Do whatever you want with it.’. Take as much evidence with you to the police: You may need it for the courts. Leave the folder with the police. They have to start an investigation.

I took a file to the police and they told me it was a civil case. What shall I do?

Answer: One way of getting the police to investigate online harassment, is to go and physically leave the evidence there, so go back and leave the file on the reception desk and leave. Your online harassment evidence file is something physical. They cannot put it in the bin. They cannot shelf it. They have to look at the file and put the harassment information that you have just given them somewhere, so they have to start a formal investigation. We have had many people coming back, saying that they have tried to leave the online harassment evidence there but their police have told them not to. We always tell them to go back, leave it there and say, ‘I’m going!’.

Is online harassment a freedom of speech issue?

Answer: Online harassment is about limiting people's free speech. Oppressive language doesn't promote free speech on the internet. For instance, if you join a forum or social media group that you feel represents you and hears you, where you can connect and vent and then you receive a lot of abuse or threats because of your free speech, it will make you feel less safe and it will inhibit your freedom of speech. It does the exact opposite of promoting freedom of speech.

Isn't online harassment the price you pay for being online?

Answer: That's like saying that walking down the street whilst black will inevitably lead to racist comments and that's the price you pay for walking down the street and it should be accepted. Any words of harassment aren't more defensible on the internet than they are if it was offline and on the streets.

I was so happy joining a forum and felt heard but then I received abuse from an anonymous user. Should I just accept this?

Answer: No. You do not sign up for harassment when you open up any online account and your speech freedom has been threatened. For example, nobody wants to talk on their forum about the sexism or racism that they have encountered, only to find mocking and threatening messages in their inbox. Freedom of speech does not mean anything if individuals do not feel safe and are not free from abuse and harassment. Although the line between hate speech and free speech is a difficult one to draw, people should be held accountable for what they say on the internet.

I am getting abuse on Social Media. Should they do something about it?

Answer: Social Media used to be free speech platforms and they wouldn't remove anything, even if you complained. Things have changed because they have to make it a safer place to encourage people to use their platforms, so that they know it is a safe place to be. There should be a section on the site that you can access to report any online harassment or abuse but unfortunately, here at Cohen Davis, we know that Social Media don't always respond with online abuse queries. Contact Cohen Davis if you do not get a response. We remove so many things offline daily, so we can help.

I thought internet platforms had changed in their response to harassment. I have reported abuse to a site but nothing has happened. Help!

Answer: Yes, they have changed their policy but not all online harassment reports are taken seriously. Let’s move three or four years ahead in time from the days when internet companies didn't do anything about online harassment. Things have since evolved and Internet companies are saying actually we are going to help regulate the internet ourselves. Instead of having a space that it is entirely unregulated, we don’t want the government to step in and we will take responsibility. The problem is that internet companies are not equipped to judge about who is telling the truth, who is not telling the truth, who is being harassed and who isn’t being harassed. These are traditionally roles of government agencies. So, although some work has been done in that respect, ultimately, it will be for the government to step in and be more proactive in regulating how people behave online and help safeguard people’s well being on the internet. Many social media platforms have a robotic response and your harassment complaint is down to the judgement of a content moderator, so harassment reports are not always honoured. I would suggest seeking advice from an internet law firm, like us, if you have reported harassment online but haven't had a response. It isn't unusual but we know how to deal with it, quickly.

Is impersonating people online a police matter?

Answer: It is, if you feel any of the online content has broken the law and you are feeling harassed by it. If it is just your name that is being used, which happens so often when you are in the public eye, then report it to the social media site directly. You will need your passport and other forms of ID. If it is more than just your name that they are using, it is important that you document all of the information that you can by taking screenshots of the information and taking to the file to the Police. Content that needs to be reported to the police includes harassment, death threats, malicious communications that might be racist, sexist or homophobic and credible threats of violence. We see so many cases where it isn't just impersonation. An impersonator might use that account to spread malicious news, for example or defamatory posts and it amounts to harassment, which is a criminal offence as well as a civil wrongdoing.

Someone is harassing me on a forum. What shall I do about it?

Answer: Keep a log of all of the harassing activity. Save all offending communications for evidence, both electronically and in hard copy (print). DO NOT edit them in any way. Contact the group's administrator and provide evidence of the harassment. If they fail to respond, stop participating in the group (i.e., have your e-mail removed from the group's distribution list). If this persists and/or escalates, do contact Cohen Davis and we can assist you.

I am bombarded with abuse on a chat site. What shall I do?

Answer: Contact the group's administrator and provide evidence of the harassment. If they fail to respond, stop participating in the group. It is unfortunate if you have enjoyed the site but you may be able to find another similar one, so we would advise you to log off and go elsewhere. If the situation causes you to fear for your safety or that of others, contact your local police. Keep a log of any harassing activity. Save all offending communications for evidence, both electronically and in hard copy (print). DO NOT edit them in any way.

I have just discovered that I have been defamed on the internet. What shall I do?

Answer: As soon as you discover that someone is defaming you or your business on the internet, it is important to act swiftly. First, gather as much evidence: Internet Protocol addresses, URLs, identities and contact details - as soon as possible before they disappear. Screenshot everything and write down as much information as you can, including link addresses that appear in the browser. Secondly, you want to get the defamatory information down before Google or other search engines puts it into their search results. It might take Bing, as an example, a few weeks or even months to index defamatory web pages. Once it has done so, it will also take weeks or months for the system to remove the pages, which means you must operate within windows of opportunity. Once a defamatory website or blog post has been indexed by search engines, people searching for your business may find results showing snippets of defamatory comments, even if the postings by that time have been taken off the internet.

Could I be liable if someone uses my blog page to post defamatory messages?

Answer: As a publisher, you may be liable for the defamatory posts but you could solve this by perhaps reviewing the material before it is published and refuse any content that is defamatory. Or, you could have the wording in your Terms and Conditions that you do not condone abuse and this includes the prohibition of offensive posts and anything illegal posted on your blog. This would allow for the immediate removal, if anything is posted without your previous reviewing and also provides an effective abuse notification procedure.

Do you provide legal help to sex workers?

Answer: Yes, Cohen Davis always have provided legal advice to sex workers and most of the cases we advise on are settled promptly and successfully. We have heard this question so many times because it is often challenging for sex workers to obtain legal advice due to prejudice which unfortunately exists across the board, including in some parts of the legal profession but you are in the right place. You may be interested to read about a recent case of ours where the judge said that just because our client was a sex worker and advertised on the internet, it didn't mean that she was not allowed a private life (see GYH v. Persons Unknown in Case Studies).

I retweeted someone's post. Am I liable for defamation?

Anyone who retweets someone's defamatory posts, are just as responsible, if they knew or had reason to know, of the defamation. It could be that liking or tagging defamatory posts could be sufficient grounds for a defamation claim.

Can I sue someone for posting true information about me online?

Answer: Yes. It is a Breach of Privacy issue - a misuse of private information that has been posted without your consent. This could be any information that is true that includes details about your medical history, sex life, family, home, for instance. Photographs that were taken without your consent may be considered a breach of privacy, also. Damages and an injunction can be obtained for harassment also, if you decide to take the claim to the courts. On many occasions, a letter from us to the perpetrator could provide you with the long term remedies that you require.

I rely on Social Media for my work and now I am being harassed but I cannot shut my account down, due to it being my livelihood. What can I do?

Answer: When harassment occurs on social media and rapid help as well as privacy is needed, we will obtain an injunction, anonymise our client and allow them to continue with uninterrupted use of their social media account and without media attention. This is particularly beneficial if you are in the public eye or you rely on social media for your business. You may want to read our Case Study about DDF v YYC. We issued an anonymous user an injunction via Instagram and it allowed our client to continue working as well as stopping the harassment. We advise you to call us as soon as possible because we know that we can help you, swiftly and delicately.

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