Internet trolls in the U.K. could face up to two years in prison if proponents of a new proposal set for Parliament have their way. The proposal, put forth last Sunday, seeks to quadruple the current maximum penalty of six months. Its author, MP Angie Bray, says she decided the change was necessary “after one of her constituents said her 14-year-old daughter had been ‘verbally raped’ by 2,000 obscene texts sent by an older man, who escaped conviction.”
Anyone who has spent any amount of time online is aware of internet trolls and the mischief they revel in creating. Although annoying enough in their traditional form, some of these Poe’s-Law-loving rapscallions—perhaps emboldened by the relative anonymity of the internet—have evolved into something much worse. These individuals use the web to stalk, threaten, and harass others. Proponents in the U.K. say the proposal is being put forth in an effort to discourage these crimes.
Unsurprisingly, this action comes in the wake of a series of high-publicity trolling incidents. A particularly brutal instance of online bullying occurred two days prior to the proposal. Chloe Madeley was attacked by several users online after her mother, Judy Finnigan, made a comment downplaying the heinousness of the rape of a woman by professional footballer Ched Evans. Finnigan argued that Evans should be allowed to return to professional football in part because the rape he committed was not violent as, in her view, it did not “physically harm” the victim. Understandably, this sparked a great deal of criticism on social media sites, but some users took it too far. In retaliation for Finnigan’s remarks, multitudinous online culprits threatened (via Twitter) to rape her daughter.
The Madeley incident is not the only trolling trouble in recent memory for citizens of the U.K. Kate and Gerry McCann, whose four-year-old daughter disappeared in 2007, were attacked viciously and for years by online trolls who, despite the evidence, believed the McCanns were at fault for their daughter’s disappearance.
The cybercrimes of super-trolls are not confined to just the U.K. In 2013, a Canadian teen hanged herself after she was mercilessly bullied for being the victim of a gang-rape. Even after her death, sexist slurs continued to be posted on a Facebook page dedicated to her memory. Sri Lanka has suffered race riots as a result of online hate speech.
As a result of these race riots, Sri Lanka has considered legislation similar to the new laws in the U.K. Arizona passed legislation broadening its telephone harassment laws to include all forms of electronic communications in a move that upset many First Amendment groups. The groups are opposed to the legislation because they feel it is overly-broad and too limiting of First Amendment rights. The strong feelings on both sides of the discussion are evidence of the difficulty of crafting a legislative solution.
Due to the relatively anonymous nature of online communication and the ever-growing importance of computers in daily life, politicians of almost every state are under pressure to promulgate stricter rules for online activity.
As a result, each must undertake the difficult task of balancing the public’s interest in preventing the social harm caused by trolling against the dangers of restricting free speech and invading personal privacy.