In a move that makes it easy to see why the First Amendment was considered necessary by a bunch of late-1700s aristocratic rebels in the English colonies, the government of the United Kingdom is pushing for new penalties against people who are mean on the internet. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced this weekend a set of proposed new laws that would threaten people with two years in jail for being really, really mean online.
“These internet trolls are cowards who are poisoning our national life,” the secretary said. “No-one would permit such venom in person, so there should be no place for it on social media. That is why we are determined to quadruple the current six-month sentence. This is a law to combat cruelty – and marks our determination to take a stand against a baying cyber-mob.”
The secretary made reference in his announcement to a recent case in which a model and TV presenter named Chloe Madeley received rape threats on Twitter. Ironically, Madeley received the threats after she defended previous comments by her mother about a case involving a footballer who himself had previously been convicted of rape, whom Madeley’s mother defended because he hadn’t caused “physical harm” in a recent attack on a teenage girl. Madeley herself was unharmed by the threatening tweets, which she told the Mail “should be seen as online terrorism and it should be illegal.”
Those who are cheering the proposal don’t seem to understand how problematic it is to implement laws that aim for moving targets. The standard for trolling that’s already on the books – “to send another person a letter or electronic communication that contains an indecent or grossly offensive message, a threat or information which is false and known or believed by the sender to be false” – is one that could be applied to a large percentage of the communications on the internet.
Never mind that intent is notoriously hard to prove, though, or that the capability to carry out a threat is not required to make one. Or that there are less intrusive solutions to the problem, or that setting a precedent of silencing unpopular speech online is never a good idea. It’s time to send a message! A loud, vague, confusing, but definitely authoritarian message.
Twitter is notorious for being unable to stop abusive users from making others’ lives hell, mostly because its design, which has changed very little since its earliest beginnings in 2006, makes every message equal to every other. the only way pushing for harsher laws would make sense is if people were forced to use the service. But in this world, leaving Twitter is a legitimate option. If someone finds they attract a lot of bile on Twitter, and Twitter can’t or won’t help them avoid that bile, why would they want to use stick around anyway? It’s no secret that there are competing social networks that make blocking abuse easier by design, something that it seems clear is a problem for Twitter.
We casually breeze past offensive religious materials, advertisements, and people in the real world every day. And if someone says mean things online that they’d never dare say in public, most of us ignore them. But there’s something about taking communications online that renders some people incapable of filtering their stream. Never mind that recognizing trolls them gives them a feeling of power – the bottom line is that interacting with them is a waste of time in every way. In the real world, if you’re being threatened, moving away from the source of the threats usually ranges from “very difficult” to “downright impossible.” Online, it’s a much simpler matter with a wider range of solutions, from creatively shaming the harassers to changing social networks to opting out entirely from a medium that’s more hassle than it’s worth.
Those who constantly appeal to the powers above to step in and save them from others saying things they don’t like to read are actually stripping themselves of the agency that the internet gives them to deal with their problems. Worse, they’re always on the verge of forcing everyone else to come along for the ride whether they agree or not – and that’s a big problem.
As we push ourselves toward relying more and more on legal structures invented long before anybody ever dreamed of instant communication to fix the problems inherent in this thoroughly modern medium, we’re losing the flexibility we need to respond to its problems effectively. And on top of it all, we invite the worst trolls around – politicians – to have the final say on what’s okay.
The internet may be a mess, but it’s only that way because people are a mess and it reflects us. Political systems reflect us, too, only with an added, nasty one-two combination: the power to destroy lives, and a strong tendency to dole out unintended consequences in the most random fashion. But hey, so long as it’s easier than switching social networks, I’m all ears. Who are we going after tomorrow?