The Norwich Pharmacal Order-an Important Weapon Against Online Trolls

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Have you ever been abused online? Repeatedly abuses by an online troll? At some point you may have to consider getting a Norwich Pharmacal Order.

A Norwich Pharmacal order is an equitable relief that a Court can grant to force the respondent-for example a social media website platform-to disclose certain information to the applicant. It has grown in popularity and frequency with the growth of the internet and social media platforms.

As you know many users of these platforms use fake or pseudonymous names which gives them protection to wage campaigns of abuse on their targets. You will see the widespread use of such names on Twitter and YouTube, to name but two social media sites, but Instagram and Facebook also have their fair share.

I recently wrote about such a case in the case involving Twitter and Fastway Couriers in which the High Court granted a Norwich Pharmacal order to Fastway Couriers to uncover the identity of the person operating an abusive parody account against Fastway Couriers.

The Norwich Pharmacal is generally sought against an innocent intermediary-the social media company-in order to reveal the identity of the troll who has been engaging in abusive or hate filled posts and activity.

The order will be granted when the court finds it necessary and in the interests of justice. However, there is no legislation or court rules which provides for such an order.

The origin of the order arises from the case of Norwich Pharmacal v Customs and Excise Commissioners. Norwich Pharmacal believed their patent was being abused by other traders who were importers in the UK. They wished to find the names of the importers who were infringing their intellectual copyright and sought the identities from Customs and Excise in the UK.

The Court held that an innocent party is obliged to reveal the names if they have helped the wrongdoer, even if the assistance was unintentional and inadvertent.

Norwich Pharmacal order test

The test to be applied by the High Court in Ireland will involve looking at these factors:

  1. Has a wrong been committed-is there a reasonable basis for this finding?
  2. Is the disclosure of information necessary to allow the applicant take action against the wrongdoer?
  3. Is the innocent third party able to provide the necessary information or documents?
  4. Is the order necessary in the interests of justice?

Cryptocurrency theft-May 2021

The Norwich Pharmacal Order application was used again in the High Court in May 2021. The case involved bitcoin.

Williams v Coinbase Europe Limited (High Court Record No. 2021/348P) involved an Ameican man who bought a large amount of cryptocurrency in February 2021. He transferred it to his blockchain account, but it disappeared soon after.

Williams engaged the services of a cryptographic tracing firm who traced his bitcoin to the Irish based defendant in this case. Who held this account, however, was not clear.

The defendant could not disclose the identity of the account holder due to GDPR and contractual obligations without a court order. For this reason, proceedings were instituted for the plaintiff to obtain a Norwich Pharmacal Order which would force the defendant to disclose the identity.

The application to the High Court was successful. The order was made that the defendant had 5 days to hand over all information in its possession which would reveal or help to reveal the identity of the individual who controlled the account.

This information included ip addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses, names, log in and log out information.

Mr Justice Allen held there was a strong case of prima facie wrongdoing and referred to his decision in the Parcel Connect v Twitter case ([2020] IEHC 279).

This decision appears to be unique insofar as it was one brought to identify the owner of a cryptocurrency wallet.

Conclusion

An application to the High Court will be necessary to obtain a Norwich Pharmacal order. Hopefully you will never have to make such an application. If you are forced to you can rest assured that the Irish High Court has shown its willingness to grant such orders where there is a strong case of prima facie wrongdoing.