Yesterday, it was reported that a man from Donegal had been fined €2,000 for criminal damage, having posted offensive material under the name of an ex-girlfriend on her Facebook account. The Independent reports that:
A local garda told prosecuting counsel Sean Gillane SC that in the early hours of April 6th, 2011, the accused went to her house to confront her over a perceived infidelity. When the accused later left the house, the woman noticed that he had taken her phone.
He went through her text messages which confirmed to him that she was in a new relationship. He then logged into her Facebook from her phone and posted a status update in her name stating that she was “a whore” who would take “any offers.”
Complicating the case is the fact that the man was charged but acquitted of rape and false imprisonment of the woman on the same day. Had the rape prosecution resulted in a conviction, it might have been more appropriate to consider the Facebook incident an aggravating matter of that offence rather than an offence in its own right. However, the man pleaded guilty of the Criminal Damage matter, so there was no opportunity for the court to consider the appropriateness of the offence to the actions in question.
In considering the sentance yesterday, Judge Sheehan sought assistance from prosecuting counsel as to what the appropriate punshment might be. He asked asked how he was to assess the damage if nothing had physically been broken. Counsel replied that the offence had more in common with harassment than criminal damage. This does seem to raise the question – why was he not charged with harassment? The reason for that is that the offence of harassment requires “persistent” abuse, which suggests that a one-off incident won’t be enough to make out the offence.
The Criminal Damage Act 1991 is generally more concerned with broken windows and arson than with Facebook accounts, though it does helpfully include the following within its definition of “damage”
” in relation to data-
to add to, alter, corrupt, erase or move to another storage medium or to a different location in the storage medium in which they are kept”
You would think, with Data Protection such a concern these days, that this offence would have been more often used. The DPP didn’t dwell much on the data aspect of the case though, and instead emphasised that the damage done to the victim had been primarily reputational (though, confusingly, it was also emphasised that the message was quickly taken down).
The traditional remedy for damage to reputation has been civil rather than criminal, via a suit for defamation. However, until quite recently, the offence of criminal libel existed (it was abolished under the Defamation Act, 2009), which did provide a mechanism for a defamer to be criminally punished without the defamed having to go to the expense and trouble of suing them. In 2001, a Mayo man was prosecuted for listing a business rival on an escort site (disparagement of the sexual behaviour of women is a depressing constant in tales of online abuse) and was ordered to pay in excess of £10,000. The Government of the day abolished that offence though, citing its incompatability with Freedom of Speech.
One has to wonder why, if that offence was worth abolishing only a few years ago, the DPP has effectively reintroduced it through the back door. If the concern is for the privacy of data, and the preservation of the personal domain (online or offline) of the individual, then that is perhaps more appropriately within the remit of the Data Protection Commissioner, who might welcome this criminal law power. Yesterdays’s case, with its emphasis on reputational damage, suggests otherwise. Confusing matters further were references to harassment. And where people frequently mischievously post things online under the names of others (I see it in my timeline all the time), we need to come to some clarity on whether that should be a crime, and if so, why. Perhaps most importantly, we need clarity on which crime it actually is.