independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Everything free on web, even abuse

The culture of internet freedom, anonymity and lack of legislation gives free rein to cyber-bullies, writes Joyce Fegan

Irish internet sensations Anna Saccone and Jonathan Joly make a six figure sum living from their online reality show, The SacconeJolys, which they broadcast on YouTube. They receive over three million views a month – in total, their videos have had nearly 40 million internet hits.

They recently had a baby girl, Emilia, who is now part of their online show. Last week the four-month-old baby was the subject of a vicious cyber-bullying attack, with anonymous users, known as 'trolls', labelling the child "fat", "ugly" and "mentally slow".

As a couple they have received online criticism for their parenting skills and Jonathan was outrageously accused of being a "paedophile" because he showered his daughter. All defamatory and slanderous comments came from nameless, faceless individuals and there is no way to identify them.

"We take the high road every day. But those comments last week really hit a nerve with Anna, she's a new mother and so she felt she had to speak out," explains the online reality star and father of one. Anna quoted some of the hurtful comments on her Facebook and Instagram accounts describing the perpetrators as "sick" and "disgusting".

Just before the baby was due, they had to move house and change car as someone had disclosed their address and vehicle registration number. Strangers were turning up uninvited to their home. Jonathan said that he rented a van and moved in the "middle of the night" to retain privacy over their new location.

The couple are the biggest Irish YouTube channel and are contacted by TV production companies seeking advice on how to emulate their success and record number of viewers. They filmed and uploaded the birth of their baby and so far it has received 400,000 views. This too garnered attacks from anonymous internet users who "hoped" that the mother would either miscarry or that the child would be stillborn.

The couple film every part of their lives and it's their "relate-ability and honesty" that makes them as successful as they are, believes Jonathan. Seventy per cent of their audience is US-based, whilst the other 30 per cent comes from the EU.

Asked whether or not their decision to broadcast videos and publish images of their daughter invites such attacks, the couple attest that they are not the "first to do it". Jonathan elaborated that "voyeurism has always been part of human nature" as has "nastiness" but there has never been such a huge platform for it to play out on before.

In the recent avalanche of teenage suicide cases in Ireland which were linked to incidences of cyber-bullying, Joly does not believe there is much scope to legislate for the internet. "People will say it's terrible but nothing's going to happen," he says. He cited the opposed American bill, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) for his rationale. In 2012 the Obama administration failed to pass the bill saying "we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet."

The "innovative internet" is what Joly "loves" and it is this very nature that has allowed him and his wife to make a substantial living for themselves, something which he says they could do from any where in the world. Jonathan explains that people are used to freedom of information and the free nature of the web. If a person had an account suspended or locked for reported abuse they could just create another account minutes later. Whilst he says that internet 'trolls' are not as "smart as they think they are because it's easy to identify their patterns" it still remains impossible to physically name them.

No internet legislation exists in Ireland and the anonymous, sometimes fatal crimes perpetrated online remain immune from the justice system. The Anti-Bullying Centre in Trinity College Dublin state that there are guidelines to follow but that they are not legally enforceable. They do, however, note that Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Persons Act, 1997, could be invoked in cases of serious cyber-bullying. The 16-year old Act cites the use of a telephone by a perpetrator for the purposes of harassment, as a punishable offence.

After the 2010 cyber-bullying-related suicide of American-based Irish teenager Phoebe Prince, anti-bullying legislation was enacted in the US state of Massachusetts where she had been living. Two teenagers were convicted of criminal harassment after a three-month campaign of "incessant" abuse over Facebook and on mobile telephones.

Whether or not this Irish case of baby cyber-bullying is the first of its kind remains unclear. It does however highlight the inherent dangers of the unregulated nature of the internet and the risks associated with publishing images of a child online.

Irish Independent

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