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Proposed ‘troll’ laws sound more like election strategy than serious policy

Monday, October 20th 2014 by Gareth Duggan
The Government’s announcement of new legislation to increase the potential sentences for internet “trolls” is more about pre-election positioning than serious policy.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s quotes on the issue refer to a “baying cybermob” spreading “venom”, a choice of language which should be saluted for its moderation and thoughtfulness.

Bandwagons are alluring things for those who crave attention, and Mr Grayling (pictured) has leapt on this one with tremendous enthusiasm.

Abusing the anonymity of the internet as a means of bullying is, without question, disgraceful. Victims, and Chloe Madeley is the most recent example, deserve society’s sympathy and protection.

However, the announcement of new legislation to increase the penalties for this behaviour is less about protecting people than it is about being seen to be tough.

Trolling cases are currently tried at Magistrates Court, under one of three pieces of legislation: the Malicious Communications Act 1988, the Communications Act 2003 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The court can impose prison terms of up to six months or fines of up to £5,000. To result in greater penalties, cases must be tried or sentenced in at the next level up in our legal system: Crown Court.

But it’s important to remember that six months is a long, serious stretch of prison time. Two years is extremely serious. For example, two years is a potential sentence for causing death by dangerous driving, selling knives illegally, racially aggravated common assault, incest, ill treatment of patients or imprisoning a woman.

Crown Court judges and lawyers should be dealing with these sorts of crimes, but as nasty and damaging as trolling is, placing it alongside such crimes feels disproportionate. Input on this issue from the Sentencing Commission is essential.

A more powerful tool for combating any form of bullying behaviour is making it socially reprehensible. That is only possible when people’s behaviour is transparent and identifiable.

And this is the area in which serious thought and commitment to action are both vital and incredibly complex.

Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and other social media platforms offer varying levels of anonymity. This is important in some circumstances; the Arab Spring unfolded thanks largely to the ability of anonymous activists to rally support in an important cause.

But when that anonymity is used deliberately by trolls to inflict pain on the innocent, it becomes a problem. Finding and prosecuting them is difficult, and quantifying the harm they have caused is extremely challenging.

Serious thought should be put into this issue, and simply increasing sentences for those caught and prosecuted is a blunt and clumsy approach.

But of course, Mr Grayling is speaking less to the actual and potential victims of this type of behaviour than he is to his law-and-order constituents. In particular, he is talking to those of his constituents who have little real understanding of the issue but are scared of it anyway.

And legislating out of fear is not a wise idea.

Inevitably such legislation is mis-used, just as it has in the case of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). It was designed to allow the police to intercept communications to stop serious crimes such as terrorism; it was recently used to secretly secure the phone records of a major national newspaper to identify that paper’s anonymous source.

Knee-jerk laws aimed at punishing “trolls” might end up being used to punish someone who flings a few nasty words at the Prime Minister’s Twitter feed, or uses Flickr to publish images of police brutality. Far-fetched? Maybe. Impossible? Certainly not.

Being and staying safe online is an important and challenging subject. It is a complex ethical, technical and legal subject which deserves better than heavy-handed and poorly conceived Government legislation.

This announcement is more about appealing to voters’ emotions than it is about protecting their rights and freedoms.

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