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It came as a surprise when 25-year-old Zane Alchin stood recently in a Sydney court and pled not guilty. Alchin was widely expected to plead out. He stood accused of threatening to rape Paloma Brierley Newton on Facebook and there were screenshots of the comments. Turns out though, it's very hard to send your online troll to jail.
This story actually starts with Drake. Back in 2015, a Facebook friend of Alchin's named Chris Hall posted a screenshot of a young woman's Tinder profile. In her photo, the woman—Olivia Melville—is smiling broadly. She's got long dark hair and a nose ring. Two friends pose behind her. Below the photo, her bio references Drake's line from the track "Only" reading, "Type to wanna suck you dry and then eat some lunch with you." Hall captioned the post, "I'm surprised she'd still be hungry for lunch."
Pretty early on, Melville was tagged on Hall's post by a friend. It was actually the second time someone had shared her Tinder profile online. "Olivia, why don't u show your parents your tinder profile?" Chris Hall asked her. "I'm sure they'd be so impressed." "Why would they care?" she commented back. "It's just a song lyric." The post soon went crazy and with the traffic came a torrent of abuse directed at Melville.
Melville shared Hall's original post to draw attention to the abuse she'd faced and mutual friends soon tagged in Hall, Alchin, and others so they could comment. "Chris Hall brother the Calvary (sic) has arrived," Alchin allegedly said in his first post. It was on Melville's Facebook page, where Alchin first crossed paths with a 23-year-old friend of Olivia, a woman named Paloma Brierley Newton. She entered the Facebook conversation unaware that she would later send Zane Alchin to court. She's not sure which of Alchin's comments first made her angry, but says "there was something about 'so sluts complain about being sluts and then get upset when they get called out for being sluts?'" She decided to call him on his shit.
From there Brierley Newton says the thread just devolved into what she saw as explicit rape threats: "The best thing about raping a feminist is that they don't get any action so they are 100 times tighter... I'd fuck your mum if I saw her."
"I was just like, 'You know what, fuck this,'" she says. "I was so angry, I was shaking. Every time I read the YouTube comments on anything it just suddenly turns to rape threats... let's just threaten to rape her because she's inherently scared of that." That day, she wrote a post on Facebook about the incident, and then went straight to the police. She says she didn't even know if Alchin could be charged with anything, but she was convinced his threats couldn't be legal.
Brierley Newton says when she first took screenshots of Alchin's threats to the cops, they didn't take her seriously. Officers tried to tell her the case would be too hard to prosecute. For one, they'd have to find a way to prove that Alchin was actually the person on the computer making the threats. Enraged, she left, only to get home and find her post had been liked over 500 times. The women commenting on her post banded together to form a group called Sexual Violence Won't Be Silenced, and launched a petition against Alchin.
It shouldn't have taken 16,000 people signing an online petition to get the police to properly investigate. In Australia, online harassment falls under section 474.17 of the Criminal Code, which was first introduced in 2004 and amended in 2012. "Everyone is saying if there wasn't an actual, direct threat like, 'I'm going to come to your house and rape you,' then that's not against the law. That's not actually true," Brierley Newton says. "The law is called 'using a carriage service to harass, menace, or cause offense.'"
According to University of Sydney Law School associate professor David Rolph, this broad offense criminalizes menacing, harassing, or causing offense using mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc. "In order for there to be prosecutions for this offense, people have to report the incident to the police. If people do not report the offense, or indeed, if they are unaware of the offense, then the police and prosecutors can can't do anything," he explains. "There would probably have to be a level of seriousness in the conduct in question—for instance, a one-off comment would be unlikely to be reported or prosecuted."
When cases of online harassment are prosecuted, there is often concern about stifling freedom of speech. Can a law have the nuance to tell the difference between a joke and a threat? In 2012, a British man named Paul Chambers was found guilty of breaching England's Communications act and ordered to pay the equivalent of 2,000 pounds [$1,400 USD] in fines and costs. Two years earlier, sitting at his local airport when his flight had been delayed, Chambers had tweeted: "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!! The authorities took this as a serious threat."
It's cases like these that make the news, but there are many others where the law fails, because it targets behavior we'd never put up with in real life but often tolerate online. In late 2014, 22-year-old Billy Bartolomeus Tamawiwy set up a fake Facebook profile under the female pseudonym "Tayla Edwards." Under this guise he sent a friend request to a teenage boy and started sending sexual messages.
In early 2015, Tamawiwy was found guilty of luring the teenage boy over Facebook, promising sex with Tayla Edwards if the two met, and then raping him and filming the act with his phone. Tamawiwy even tried to blackmail the young man into having sex with him again, threatening to circulate the video, and eventually sent it to the boy's younger brother.
Alchin's case is unique from most online harassment cases successfully prosecuted in Australia. Unlike Tamawiwy's case, it exists entirely within that gray area between our online lives and our everyday ones. If he's found guilty, it will be one of the first local cases of its kind.
Zane Alchin faces up to three years imprisonment, but Brierley Newton believes community service at a women's shelter would be a more effective punishment. She says that since Alchin's case hit the news, she's been flooded with more online threats by people angered that she took the case to the police. At the same time, however, she says she's been inspired by the scores of women contacting her and thanked Sexual Violence Won't Be Silenced about raising awareness of their rights online.
Zane Alchin will face court again on March 1, 2016.
It all started with this shot of a Tinder profile. Image via
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