The pile-up of the news agenda led to something quite odd this week. On Monday, Frank Zimmerman was given a suspended jail sentence for sending abusive, threatening emails to MP Louise Mensch among others.
On Tuesday, the defamation bill had its second reading in parliament.
Somehow, the two issues were treated as one.
The cause of the apparent confusion was clause 5 of the defamation bill, which many represented as forcing Internet Service Providers to hand over details of anonymous “trolls”. This despite the fact that, as Labour’s Sadiq Khan pointed out in the Commons debate, Clause 5 specifically relates to libel and not general cases. Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrat MP, stressed that any steps concerning ISPs and anonymous posts should be voluntary (a concern shared by Index). The guidelines on these steps have not yet appeared, quite probably because they have not been drafted yet.
The term troll seems now to mean “anyone saying anything unpleasant on the internet”. But that simply isn’t correct. Trolling is the deliberate use of inflammatory language in order to provoke a reaction on a message board, or, increasingly, on a social media network. Sending emails to someone threatening to kill their children (which is what Frank Zimmerman did) is not trolling. Nor is it defamation. It is harassment, and already illegal under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 — a law that has its problems, as Paul Chambers of the Twitter Joke Trial will tell you — but is designed for this sort of thing.
Trolling is an issue on the web, as is bullying and harassment. But to conflate either with the matter of libel reform is to seriously confuse the issues.
Update 13/06/12 : The Commons debate on the defamation bill is online now, and worth watching, if only to see how so many issues got thrown into the mix that had absolutely nothing to do with libel. The tone was set by the Democratic Unionist Party’s Ian Paisley Jr, Conservative Nadine Dorries and Labour MP Steve Rotheram, who brought not just what they perceived as “trolling” into the mix, but also, in Dorries case, even alleged copycat suicide groups. Rotheram, bafflingly, warned the house of “professional trolls” learning their trade at “troll academy” (no, me neither).
There’s something about the web that brings out an extraordinary level of somethingmustbedonery in a certain type of politician. As has been remarked on this blog many times, the knowledge that it is possible to shut down or block a website or web page easily seems to make some people think that it is also desirable, and a simple solution that does not seem to carry any of the qualms that, say, supressing the publication of a book would. This view covers not just the illegal but also the merely unpleasant.
Watch the debate here
You can also read Index’s liveblog on the debate here