“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather”.
Thus begins the prolific cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”. This intriguing (and admittedly somewhat romanticised) rhetoric was first published in 1996 in protest to the perception that the United States government was attempting to impose its own agenda on the internet and its many users. With the news last week that Justice Secretary Chris Grayling intends to quadruple jail sentences in the UK for ‘internet trolling’, I found my mind wondering back to the Declaration, and how it reminds us that party policy and cyberspace do seldom make for a happy marriage.
Now, before I go any further, I feel obliged to categorically state that I do not condone the actions of the more offensive and belligerent internet trolls out there, nor am I seeking to offer up an apologist stance in this article. But while internet trolls can be among the worst examples of the consequences of an “unregulated” cyberspace, there are many reasons not to compliantly nod through yet another hard line restriction of personal freedom.
Straight away I feel that the lettering of Grayling’s argument is extremely poor; the word “troll”, referring to internet wrongdoing, is his and not mine. I am aware – as quite possibly Grayling is not – of the obscure, ever-changing, inflammatory definition of the term “troll”. This case is perhaps best demonstrated by the McCanns, or specifically, the abuse that has been aimed at them on social media in recent weeks. With the endorsement of Sky News, supporters of the family took it upon themselves to hunt down these internet bullies, which resulted in the uncovering of Brenda Leyland as one of the McCanns’ more prolific tormentors. Within hours of her exposure Leyland committed suicide. Leyland was classed by many branches of the media as a “troll”, but did this woman (with a history of mental-illness) deserve such a label? And more importantly, did her actions merit a jail sentence over professional treatment?
This is just one micro-example of what police and courts will face on a daily basis in an anti-troll war, and we swiftly discover that the lines do not cease to be blurred over the issue of mental health. For many people “trolling” is simply the act of mischief-making. Say, entering a Led Zeppelin forum pretending to be a Justin Bieber fan, or feigning ignorance on a football club’s history to get a delicious rise out of the resident pedant. Juvenile? Certainly. But we should never overlook the internet’s ability to provide the kind of escapism that the constraints of a modern, politically-correct society can never offer. In these very common cases Grayling would potentially be propelling countless people into the court process for being bored, immature, drunk or simply attention-seeking idiots.
Aside from the reservations I have over the practicality of such proposals, there are far more ominous implications that should concern us all. Take the police prosecution of Azhar Ahmed back in 2012 as one example. He confessed to posting several Facebook messages within days of the killing of six British servicemen in Afghanistan: “All soldiers should die and go to hell,” one read. Certainly this is a deplorable statement, but if expressed in different terms, it is not far removed from the belief that British troops should not be in “Muslim lands”, which is a political sentiment, rather than a criminal act.
A spokesperson for Yorkshire police said: “He didn’t make his point very well and that is why he has landed himself in bother”. According to the police then, the price for not expressing oneself “very well” is a two-year community sentence. To add to the sense of arbitrariness surrounding these proceedings, the district judge who presided over Ahmed’s sentencing claimed his remarks where “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory”, and he was guilty of sending a “grossly offensive communication”. The idea of potential two-year jail sentences hinging on this lettering in the near future is a particularly worrying one. Who is to determine what constitutes “offensive communication” in such matters? No government should be able to get away with such a catch-all charge. The subjective nature of the term “offensive” is also problematic, as it is open to political manipulation by both the government and strident interest groups.
With the 2015 General Election fast approaching, Grayling’s comments in the wake of several prolific cases of internet trolling smack more of a party appealing to voters’ emotions than about protecting their rights and freedoms. Ministers should instead be taking this opportunity to reflect calmly on the problem of internet abuse instead of viewing it as yet another vote-attracting opportunity. Jangling prison keys in such a manner makes it all the more apparent that Grayling is speaking less to the actual and potential victims of this type of behaviour than he is to his law-and-order constituents, specifically those who have little real understanding of the issue and its complexities but are scared of it anyway.
Poorly conceived, knee-jerk laws aimed at arbitrating what can and cannot be said by the citizens of a modern democracy should arouse suspicion even in the slowest mind. It is important to remember that two years is an extremely serious stretch of prison time, and is a potential sentence for selling knives illegally, causing death by dangerous driving, racially aggravated common assault, ill treatment of patients or imprisoning a woman. As offensive and damaging as trolling can be, placing it alongside such crimes feels disproportionate to say the least.
Cases of overwhelming public interest which appeal to our feelings and distort our judgment are always worthy of our scrutiny, and Grayling’s latest headline-grabbing initiative is a perfect example of a well-known legal adage: “hard cases make bad laws”.