Tougher Penalties Sought for Cyber-Bullies As UK Cracks Down On Trolling
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UPDATED: Apr 8, 2014
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The proliferation of Internet “trolls” and an escalation in the inflammatory nature of their speech has sparked a potential change in the UK legal landscape. As reported by the London Evening Standard, MP Angela Bray has introduced legislation that could change where—and how—online and mobile text harassment cases are handled.
Malicious Communication in the Internet Age
The UK has had a Malicious Communications Act on the books since 1988. Defining what is and is not acceptable in written communication and expanded to include electronic communication as well, the Act carries relatively benign criminal penalties. Custodial sentences cannot exceed six months in duration, and fines cannot exceed GBP 5,000. Instead of targeting the definitions of malicious communication, MP Bray’s amendment seeks to modify how cases under the Act are prosecuted. The proposed legislation would give local magistrates the power to send so-called “trolling” cases to the Crown Court, allowing for harsher sentences upon conviction, including custodial sentences of up to two years.
Not All Freedom of Speech Is Created Equal
It is no secret that the UK does not enjoy the same freedom of speech the First Amendment affords Americans. One need simply look to the numerous “racial abuse” cases prosecuted against soccer fans to see that the limits of free speech stop well short of what is tolerated in the United States. But with 60 trolling cases brought by the Crown over the last 18 months, the Crown Prosecution Service was forced to issue guidelines for prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media to ensure speech wasn’t unduly restricted.
The guidelines are vague, to put it mildly.
From an American perspective, the proposed legislation could be viewed as an encroachment upon First Amendment rights. While harassment, stalking and some forms of cyber-bullying are illegal in the US, “trolling” on social medial platforms is not. Just take a look at Twitter during any major sporting event—or election—and you’ll see a disturbing amount of racism, vitriol and antisocial behavior. But words tweeted in anger—or even in poor taste—rarely (if ever) give rise to criminal charges in the States (potential threats of terrorism being the one major exception).
Privacy, the Internet and Free Speech
The changes proposed by MP Bray would likely not pass muster in Congress. Nearly all state law enforcement agencies have their own Cybercrime task forces in place to deal with internet stalking and harassment. Trolling of the variety described by the London Evening Standard would clearly fall under the aegis of those law enforcement groups. Under US law, trolling is certainly not a federal offense. No one would argue that threats, stalking and sexual harassment—whether online or in real life—are intolerable. But criminalizing speech—no matter how hateful—is just not in the American DNA in 2014. Whether that attitude changes as social media continues to dominate the conversation remains to be seen. In the meantime, US criminal prosecution for social media posts will likely remain limited to posts thought to be indicative of acts of terrorism.