Thursday, 14 June 2012

Dealing with nasty brutish trolls.

Freedom of expression and freedom of speech are essential in our society.   Challenge and scrutiny are the lifeblood of any democracy.

The vast majority of people get the idea that freedom of speech is not unqualified.  You mustn't, in the exercise of your right to free speech, infringe others' rights such as inciting racial hatred.   The criminal law can protect from harassment - including harassment through email etc, and then there is the somewhat tortuous option of the civil courts and defamation proceedings.

Watching the Leveson Inquiry I was very taken with the evidence given by former PM Gordon Brown who complained about the 'conflation' by the media of fact and opinion.  In other words his complaint is that the press have on occasion passed off their own opinions as being facts and thereby misleading people.

When the newspapers do this - I believe they do it intentionally.  Experienced journalists are rigorous in checking their facts and understand the difference between straight reporting of facts and opinion.

In these days of the internet, blogs and email most of the comments made in public are now made by the general public - those who are not schooled in journalism and journalistic standards.   And then on top of this you have the issue of the comparative intelligence and education.  Should one be more forgiving of an individual who perhaps doesn't express him or herself effectively as intended - but in any event makes offensive, wrong or perhaps harassing or defamatory comments?  However the harm felt or perceived by those on the receiving end almost certainly won't be lessened simply because the author was more or less skilled in communication.

In my life as a councillor I have found that the vast majority of people understand that having an open honest debate where people have differing views is essential.  However I have also encountered people who don't play by the rules, who don't sense automatically where the line is - the line which shouldn't be overstepped.  I have had to deal with anonymous threats, threats of adverse publicity unless I act in a particular way as well as abusive and defamatory remarks.

I met an individual today, a person I hadn't met for perhaps close on a year.  After exchanging the usual pleasantries this individual immediately raised difficulties he had had, and his organisation had had in dealing with one particular individual who either would not, or could not correspond with him or his organisation reasonably and inline with the normal approach to correspondence.  He described the steps he had had to take to protect his staff.  I know our MP and other councillors have encountered similar difficulties - as indeed have I.  

I have seen today 3 examples from 3 different people of what I would term using very mild language - 'misbehaviour' - by this I mean misuse of the internet in one form or other.  I fear this misbehaviour is only likely to get worse.  I also read tonight an article in the Daily Mail (not my normal reading btw) where a lawyer also raises concerns that things are going to get worse.   He comments on the cases where Facebook has been compelled to reveal IP addresses of anonymous abusers and the troll who threatened Louise Mensch MP and her children has been given a suspended prison term. 

The Daily Mail piece is depressing in that the author does't believe that this court action will have the desired effect of improving behaviour.  

All this has got me wondering.  How about a court order denying these abusers access to the internet?   The power is there to do this.  If someone consistently and persistently abuses people by using the internet and email in some inappropriate way - is the best way of preventing harm unplugging him or her from the net?