On Friday 17 August 2012 the High Court in Belfast ordered Facebook to identify anonymous account holders anonymous posters responsible for abusive messages about a Belfast company and three of its  employees.   Mr Justice Weatherup also made an order anonymising the claimants on the basis that identification would only draw more public attention to them.

The Judge was told that the series of abusive messages attacking the Northern Ireland company had been posted on Facebook over several months, by people using pseudonyms.  The claimants had been unable to find out who was sending the messages.

He was ordered Facebook to provide the email addresses of those responsible within 24 hours and to supply further information within 10 days.

The BBC reported that a lawyer representing Facebook told the court that it would comply with the orders and added that the accounts of those responsible had been closed.  The case was adjourned until 6 September 2012.

No judgment is presently available and the jurisdictional basis of the order is not entirely clear.  The order appears to have been made under the Norwich Pharmacal principle – to disclose the identity of a wrongdoer.

A number of matters remain unclear.  While the individual employees would appear to have claims in harassment this is not a claim which is available to the company.  The company must, presumably, have relied on a cause of action in defamation.  If this was the position then it is difficult to see on what basis the judge could have made an order for anonymity.

The company which operates the Facebook site does not have a place of business in Northern Ireland (or in England) – but usually agrees to give effect to court orders of this kind.   Under what it describes as its “Community Standards” Facebook makes clear that it

does not tolerate bullying or harassment. We allow users to speak freely on matters and people of public interest, but take action on all reports of abusive behavior directed at private individuals. Repeatedly targeting other users with unwanted friend requests or messages is a form of harassment.

We will report further on this case when a judgment becomes available.