Online harassment of a sex worker on a review website
Solicitor Yair Cohen brought an application for an injunction on behalf of his client, who is a sex worker who provides escort services to celebrities and MPs and who was being harassed online by someone she did no longer wish to see.
You can obtain a harassment injunction even in cases where you cannot prove the identity of the harasser. In a case which the High Court Judge Mr Justice Warby described as involving a "unique mix of factual and legal ingredients", the High Court had to consider whether a sex worker who advertised herself as an escort on websites which relate to the provision of sexual services for money, has a right to privacy in relation to information concerning, among other things, her sex life, her sexual preferences and her sexual health.
Despite the fact that we were able to identity her harasser, the evidence linking him to the harassment was insufficient. This however didn’t prevent the firm from obtaining an Harassment Injunction against 'person unknown' and serving it on the suspect. Our client brought the harassment injunction under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The application involved important consideration of the privacy rights of a sex worker.
The Claimant was a transgender woman who worked as an escort and who provided sexual and companionship services to her clients under a work name. She advertised her services in niche online market places, where online users who seek the companionship of escorts can post online reviews, rate escort service providers and post comment about the services (including their own impression of the “quality”) that each escort might provide. The online reviews also include comments on matters such as hygiene, friendliness and price.
The Defendant was the unknown person responsible for a series of publications about the Claimant. The Defendant was believed to be an individual who at one point in the past sought the companionship of the Claimant without having to pay for her services. After the Claimant politely declined, the Defendant commenced a campaign of harassment against her which included, among other things, tagging her name to dozens of pornographic videos of extreme nature, posting purported private information alleging that the Claimant was mentally ill, that she was anorexic and that she was practising unsafe sex notwithstanding her infection with Sexually Transmitted Diseases and/or HIV. All of these allegations were untrue.
With the help from website operators around the world and internet service providers from the UK, we managed to identify and make contact with a suspect who denied having been involved with the harassment of the Claimant. However, following that contact, the Claimant was further harassed offline.
The Claimant sought an interim injunction to require the Defendant to cease to publish the information relating to her including her name, image or likeness of, or other identifying detail referring to her and to prohibit him from contacting her.
Article 8 of the Human Rights Act (HRA) says that it is a breach of privacy to shout out information about a person’s sexual conduct and practices, about their physical or mental health and all information about the person’s private life. The right to control what is done with such information and the right to respect for information of these kinds, rank towards the upper end of the Article 8 hierarchy even if the same information also relates to the individual’s professional life or occupation. The fact that the Claimant was an escort did not change that position.
By contrast, Article 10 of the HRA protects freedom of expression. When it comes to the internet, this right is often exercised by internet users sharing their experiences and providing advice and support to one another.
On the internet, many sex workers advertise their services in exactly the same way that a holiday resort does and by doing so they are able to reach more potential customers. What is unique however to those who provide sexual services, is that their online presence often includes, in addition to detailed information about the service they provide (which is often written in a business- like manner), a highly intimate and intrusive imagery and descriptions of themselves. There is often an overlap between the commercial nature of the service provided and the private nature of the person providing it.
You can harass in an online review. In the case of GYH v Persons unknown, the court considered online reviews posted by “punters” on an erotic review website which included consumer information in relation to the Claimant, where they shared her attributes as well as some details of their intimate experiences with her. In some cases, the Claimant engaged with the reviewers by answering questions and by placing further information about herself in the public domain.
The court however accepted that just because the Claimant provided sexual services, this did not disqualify her from the protection given to private life and to private information. At the same time, the Claimant did not have an unqualified right to decide what information about herself can be made public. It was inevitable, the court concluded that individuals who work in the sex industry may have to put up with some unwanted disclosures about themselves.
In fact, the Judge observed that there were circumstances where certainly there would be a public interest in the circulation of information which the person concerned would not want distributed. However, the information which the Claimant was seeking to remove from the internet was of a different nature entirely from the information that she appears to have distributed herself, or have approved through her engagement with online reviewers.
In any event, there was no question of a person waiving her right to privacy in a particular zone of her private life, merely by publicising some information which falls within that zone. A traditional categorised or “zonal” approach to private information was no longer appropriate which means each case will need to be considered on its own merits.
Posting false information about someone could be defamation but also harassment. Whilst one’s mental or physical health or sexual preferences are private matters which often are considered as sensitive personal data, the court considered that there could be circumstances where information relating to a sex worker’s sexual practices or sexual health could be of particular interest to the public. In such circumstances, the Article 10 rights of freedom of expression would outweigh the Article 8 rights of privacy. An example would be where a sex worker is HIV positive but that nevertheless the person practices unprotected sex. There will, however, need to be positive evidence of this, which there was not any in the case of the Claimant. In the absence of positive evidence, the court held “there is no public interest in the distribution of false information of this kind, nor is it reasonable to publish false allegations to this effect”.
There are only a few lawyers in the UK who have experience in providing legal advice to sex workers, who are being harassed online. Advising on online harassment law is a specialist legal topic which means you should always seek advice from a specialist harassment lawyer and one that does not judge and one that deals with harassment online cases for any person from whatever walk of life - in any profession.
You may be interested in visiting our website dedicated to assist people with pornographic related online issues and sex work legal help. Harassment of sex workers legal advice is something that Cohen Davis will always offer you, whenever you need it - 0800-612-7211.