Trolling: Starting the debate

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Steve & Human Rights 1

This week I raised a point of order with the Speaker in the House of Commons. I did so because a constituent of mine had come down to Westminster with a petition over the teacher’s pensions saga.

When you arrive in Parliament, if you’re not a pass holder, you have to go through Airport-type security. When he went through, the piece of paper was confiscated on the grounds that it posed a security threat. I thought this was ridiculous and so did the Speaker, but it got me thinking.

We live in the most unstable and thus, uncertain of world’s and one where our very basic concepts of security are being challenged on almost daily basis. From global terrorism and the suicide bomber to cyber terrorism and identity fraud, to nuclear and chemical warfare – it feels as though, within every strand of society, possible threats linger.

So a constant review of security at home and abroad is necessary. In the coming weeks and months, my office will be launching an internal investigation into the issue of ‘Trolling.’ For anyone that isn’t familiar with the craze, trolling is where someone can post offensive and inflammatory statements or pictures about people to an online community such as Facebook or other internet chatrooms. So for example, there are reports that people have posted some outrageous things about the missing toddler Madeleine McCann while others have glorified in some people’s suicides and deaths. This has happened recently in Liverpool after the death of Georgia Varley at a train station.

The 2003 Communications Act made reference to "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character" and ruled that it is an offence whether they are received by the intended recipient or not. At present, only two people are behind bars in this country for such behaviour. I think there are a lot more engaged in it then just those two menacing individuals.

Now some people might not think trolling is a national security threat – it isn’t. Yet it is part of a cyber world phenomenon that so far, has largely been left alone by governments, despite its propensity to offend and disturb people. I want to look at how we can stop it, the impact it would have on our civil liberties and freedom of speech if we did and what the public’s view on this is.

I’m starting from a blank canvass. I want people to contribute to a national debate on the subject and if the depth of feeling is strong enough, I will look to introduce a Bill in Parliament to strengthen the law on this.

So come on, give me your thoughts…

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  1. Trollicus Maximumus

    Theft should be decriminalised for all people. Not just MP's. Let everyone at the trough. It's Jubilee year!

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  2. Tom Smith

    Very valid points Steve. In my humble opinion anything that is an offense in person should be an accountable offense online. Racism/sexism etc are not condoned face to face so should not be condoned under the mask of a computer. Jokes are all well and good if they are obviously a joke and for all to laugh at, but when a joke is for the minority and the majority are offended then the only joke is the joke maker!

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  3. Jennifer Treen

    Although I agree that trolling can be offensive and harmful, it's probably worth noting that the word 'trolling' covers unoffensive teasing as well. After all, trolling is a art. The loose definition seems to be 'an action designed to irritate' (a couple of my BBC Parliament watching friends describe Dennis Skinner as a good example of an 'in real life' troll - his trolling is not at all harmful to debate, but he humourously irritates the opposition and Black Rod) and, under this definition, you can see why some trolling isn't as terrible as others. A blanket 'ban' on trolling would be a terrible infringement of free speech - but several websites already have bans on trolling when they cross certain lines - such as posting the address, phone number or other sensitive personal information of a user. I would be interested to see a debate about this subject, though I think a sense of proportion will definitely be needed - as will good researchers who will be able to distinguish whether the public is trolling the debate itself!

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  4. Andy Mitchell

    Thanks for raising this topic Steve. I am friends with a lady whose daughter was a personal friend of Georgia Varley and only yesterday she was telling me about the upset and anguish that this 'trolling' has caused. I fail to see how posting on a social network site is any different to making obscene telephone calls or defacing a monument. Any action that can be taken to make people realise that if they have nothing nice to say then they should say nothing at all.

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  5. Katie

    While I agree that trolling can be devastating when aimed at vulnerable people, including children, I am incredibly wary of the kinds of actions that would have to be taken to attempt to eradicate it. Censorship of the Internet would be fraught with difficulty, and would pose serious questions with regard to freedom of speech and civil liberties.

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