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Facebook was given 24 hours to supply a court in Northern Ireland with the email addresses of account holders who used the site to post abusive messages about a Belfast company, according to press reports.

Three staff members from the unnamed company have been targeted by messages on the site over a period of several months, the BBC said. The social networking site had a day to provide the email addresses of the people responsible and 10 days to supply more information about them to the court.

Mr Justice Weatherup said last Friday that the company in question could not be named as to do so would draw more public attention to the matter. He did not disclose any of the content of the Facebook posts in question.

The court said that the messages had been posted on the site over a period of several months by people using pseudonyms. The company has not been able to find out who was sending the messages, it said.

There are strict controls over the disclosure of personal data under UK data protection laws. However, the Data Protection Act states that organisations are not held by these restrictions "where the disclosure is required by or under any enactment, by any rule of law or by the order of a court".

Under the Act, an exemption from the general rule covering non-disclosure of personal data also exists "where the disclosure is necessary for the purpose of, or in connection with, any legal proceedings (including prospective legal proceedings), or for the purpose of obtaining legal advice, or is otherwise necessary for the purposes of establishing, exercising or defending legal rights".

Previously, courts in England and Wales have ordered Facebook to hand over the names, email addresses and IP addresses of users who have posted abusive information about others on the site. In December last year the Court of Appeal ruled that a website which enabled users to buy and sell tickets for international rugby matches had to provide the Rugby Football Union (RFU) in England with the personal data of those who used the site, Viagogo, to trade those tickets at an inflated price. In the Viagogo case, the judge said that it was "proportionate" to overrule data protection laws where there was "no [other] realistic way of discovering the arguable wrong-doers".

A lawyer representing Facebook said that the social network would comply with the orders, while the accounts of the people responsible for the posts have been closed.

Copyright © 2012, Out-Law.com

Out-Law.com is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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