Joburg teen takes Facebook to court after threats of murder, rape

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Joburg teen takes Facebook to court after threats of murder, rape

The girl has been threatened on Instagram, but the social media giant won’t release her abuser’s identity

Journalist
After securing a court order, the girl's parents had to hire a lawyer in the US to drive to Sacramento, California, to serve papers on the company.
The Facebook 'Fortress' After securing a court order, the girl's parents had to hire a lawyer in the US to drive to Sacramento, California, to serve papers on the company.
Image: Gallo Images/Thinkstock

A terrified teenager has had to turn to the high court to force Facebook to reveal the identity of an anonymous poster who threatened her with rape, gang rape and murder.

In the matter, which will be argued in the Johannesburg High Court on Tuesday, the 13-year-old pupil’s lawyers say Facebook Inc (which owns Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger) played a callous game of cat-and-mouse with her.

“The game itself is odious because the applicant is not a ‘cat’ and Facebook is certainly not a ‘mouse’.

“It is one of the largest, richest and most powerful corporations in the world. The applicant, on the other hand, is a 13-year-old girl who simply wants to protect herself from the most horrific harm imaginable.

“She ought never to have had to face the hurdles that Facebook’s impenetrable fortress put in her way.”

The graphic messages were posted on her Instagram platform over five days in May.

Since then, the teenager says in her court papers, she has been too scared to return to school, too afraid to be left alone at home and struggles to eat or sleep.

She believes the poster, who opened and closed Instagram accounts over five days using different names, with a variation of the word “killer”, is someone who knows her because he or she made reference to pupils in her class.

Her parents engaged the help of social media lawyer Emma Sadleir in an attempt to persuade the police to take action and enlist the co-operation of Facebook.

But it came to nothing. They were told that a subpoena could take six months to process.

They then attempted to engage with Facebook directly, with no response. Local lawyers, who acted for the company in the past, refused to accept service of any legal documents.

No one would give them an e-mail address for the company’s legal department.

Faced with this “impenetrable fortress”, they approached the high court at the end of June, securing an order for “substituted service”, and had to hire a lawyer in the US to drive to Sacramento, California, to serve the papers by hand.

Initially, Facebook said it would oppose her application for the release of the subscriber’s details. Then it changed tack, saying it would abide by the court’s decision.

In written argument, the teenager’s lawyers say she is a victim of crime and without the information she seeks, she faces a real prospect of further harm and physical violence.

Instead of treating her with the respect she deserves, she was forced to jump through expensive and traumatic, hoops.