Is the UK reacting too harshly to web trolls – people who post insulting or derogatory comments on social networks?
According to many international web users quizzed by the BBC, yes it is. The broadcaster’s reporter spoke to social media users in Spain, Japan and the US – the UK’s peers in terms of Twitter usage – along with free speech campaigners, all of which claim jailing trolls is too harsh a punishment.
At the same time, the BBC carried a story about a young singer who walked off the stage of a music festival during her set after being booed and having bottles thrown at her. Cher Lloyd has previously spoken out about web trolls after being the target of online abuse – bemoaning the apparent lack of action over such bullying.
So why the furor? Well, in the UK in the past year we’ve had cases of people using social media to laugh at a footballer who collapsed with a heart attack during a match, in what was apparently a racist attack. Trolls also recently poked fun at Gary Barlow, singer with pop group Take That, after his fourth child was stillborn. And Olympic diver Tom Daley was subjected to comments about letting down his father, who died after battling cancer last year, during the competition.
According to free speech campaigners, these comments are perfectly acceptable and the police are wrong to pursue prosecutions under various defamation and racism laws. Experts from Oxford University agree the country goes too far with the punishments it doles out – typically prison or community service sentences.
Consider, then, another BBC story from mid-August of a man prosecuted for spying on China’s female swimmers while they prepared for the Olympics. If we’re going to argue that people posting defamatory or racist comments online should be immune from prosecution, why not someone who engages in a physical act of invading privacy?
In the UK, if you walk up to someone and make a racist comment, you’ll face prosecution. As a journalist, if I write such comments in an article, I’ll be prosecuted. Similarly, if I defame someone’s character in print or online, I’ll be prosecuted. And if I walk into my local pub and call on the people there to riot, I’ll be prosecuted (just like a raft of people were after doing the same on Facebook during the London riots last August).
The important thing to note, here, is that UK police aren’t using some specially drafted web laws to pursue web trolls or restrict people’s ability to use social networks. They’re using well established defamation, privacy, and anti-racism laws to arrest and prosecute those who break those laws. Just because the comments are made online doesn’t make them any less insulting, hurtful, or dangerous than if they are made in person, face to face.
Is the UK being too heavy handed? Not one bit.