Internet trolls threaten free speech online
Internet trolls are people who scour the Internet looking to start arguments and upset people by posting inflammatory remarks and provoking an emotional response. Chat rooms, forums and comment sections of popular websites are the places where these lowly creatures go to communicate their annoying remarks.
The debate over how to punish Internet trolls
In recent news, the debate over how trolls should be reprimanded for their conduct online has sparked a debate on free speech rights. Civil liberties experts have warned that harsh sentencing for trolls could threaten free speech, reported The Telegraph.
In the U.K., Internet trolls who communicate threats that involve rape or murder will be subject to a two-year prison sentence. This development aims to limit the amount of offensive comments posted online. Others argue, however, that this sentencing could affect regular people who simply get carried away with their online personas.
The sentence for sending offensive messages online used to be six months. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling commented that the prolonged sentencing is necessary. He described trolls as "cowards who are poisoning our national life" and that their words were "venom."
Former Conservative MP Edwina Currie experienced online abused herself and believes that the new law is exactly what is needed to deter people from making online threats.
"Most people know the difference between saying something nice and saying something nasty, saying something to support, which is wonderful when you get that on Twitter, and saying something to wound which is very cruel and very offensive," said Currie, according to BBC News.
Over the last few years, many high profile women, including politicians, have been the recipients of online threats to their safety. Typically, offenders who send sexually offensive or verbally abusive comments are dealt with by the magistrates under the malicious communications act. The new law, however, will allow the Crown Courts to deal with the most serious cases. Offenders will face up to two years in prison if found guilty.
"Most people know the difference – I don't think education is the issue. I think making sure society takes a dim view of [offensive comments] is exactly the right thing to do," Currie added.
Protecting free speech
David Green, director of think-tank Civitas, is worried that people who are overzealous in their comments may end up spending two years in prison.
"There is a danger that people who have just been vigorous in their criticism of someone could be caught up in it and it will infringe freedom of speech … Because the police have already misapplied the power under the public order act to prosecute people for causing harassment, alarm or distress," said Green, according the Telegraph.
An example where the law against trolling resulted in the severe and disproportionate reaction from authorities is the case of Paul Chambers, who joked about blowing up Robin Hood Airport when it closed due to heavy snow.
"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" Chambers tweeted.
Chambers had his conviction overturned on the High Court, after freedom of speech campaigners picked up his case.
Online threats are difficult to prove
Claire Hardaker, an academic from Lancaster University, studies online aggression. Hardaker believes that proving intent of threat on the Internet is difficult, especially for police. She argued that the authorities would have to know the the people making the comments in order to judge whether there was a threat or not.
"It's like your mum sending you a text saying 'I'm going to kill you' because maybe you forgot to bring something that she asked you to bring, versus somebody on the internet saying 'I'm going to kill you'," Hardaker said, according to BBC News.