The police intervention made in the matter of former journalist Sasha Mohammed, whose computer was traced as the source of threatening e-mails sent to Trinidad Express editor-in-chief Omatie Lyder and reporter Anna Ramdass, opens a new chapter in communications protocols in Trinidad and Tobago and sends a resonant message to our Internet community. Mohammed was warned, "sternly" according to reports, by officers attached to the Cybercrime Unit of the Police Service that the tracing of Internet records led investigators following the trail of "Janice Thomas" to the IP address in use when the offending e-mail was sent from her home.
As the owner of the computer, Mohammed was cautioned that she was responsible for its use and more specifically, liable for its misuse, even if the fig-leaf defence that someone else might have been using the equipment were raised. The six-month long investigation raises new issues and awareness around the increasing use of Internet anonymity to engage in abusive and confrontational behaviour that would be entirely out of place in civil company. First among these new developments is a demonstrably capable and engaged Cybercrime Unit capable of meeting the needs and concerns of citizens who find themselves targeted by persons motivated by the veil of anonymity offered by the protocols of the Internet. The other concern that individuals motivated to harass using the tools of the Internet is the willingness of local Internet Service Providers to respond to legitimate and well-served court orders requiring compliance with the laws of Trinidad and Tobago.
In a world in which some providers of Internet services have sometimes been sluggish to respond to legal requests and even proved combatively resistant to such requests, the enforcement of local laws is enriched by such compliance if it is offered in response to formal legal requests backed up by real cases under investigation. The Internet, throughout its history, has struggled to find a balance between the openness of its architecture, the anonymity that's so readily afforded to individual participants, the need for people to protect their privacy when using the Web and the need for effective policing that's capable of responding to legitimate complaints that arise in such an environment. While there are technologies that exist which make such traces difficult to complete, it is a simple matter of fact that it is often the least savvy users who are most prone to make rash use of the technologies available to them.
There is no better illustration of this syndrome than the commenting systems that are available on the Guardian Media website and at the Trinidad Express. Both newspaper's sites have had to abandon stock commenting systems for more robust technologies which make it easier to screen the openly libellous and hostile contributions that filter in among the valuable and welcomed comments of our readership. The presence of Internet trolls is an unavoidable by-product of any Internet based system which is held open to public commentary and in the case of a newspaper's website, such misuse opens the publication to legal action as part of its publishing process.
Bloggers and commentators who host their own commentary sites or publish using public tools such as Facebook have tended to assume that their statements exist in a parallel digital universe that's somehow protected from the laws of libel. These comments are not privileged under law, and the Mohammed case proves not only that identities can be uncovered along the persistent electronic trails that messages and posts leave behind, but that particularly offensive outbursts can be held to the same standards as traditionally broadcast or published comments and statements. The amplification of local voices and increased opportunity to communicate opinions and points of view has not removed any of the responsibilities or liabilities of public discourse which have governed the traditional media's relationship with society and today's bloggers and commentators on the Internet would be sensible to be guided by the new realities that the Mohammed case has brought to the table.