Steve Initiates Trolling Debate

(September 17, 2012)

Steve in Westminster Office

On Monday 17th September, Steve became the first MP to initiate a debate on trolling following the tragic death of Georgia Varley in Liverpool. After a 12month camapign, Steve used a 30minute debate to put the issue before parliament in the hope that something serious can be done to tackle this grotesque offence...

Full Speech:

I am delighted to have the chance to initiate an Adjournment debate to highlight an issue that is becoming commonplace on social media sites.

Trolling is wide-ranging and stirs up strong feelings, among people who want it criminalised and want those who indulge in it to be jailed, and among those who believe it is their inherent right to indulge in—as they see it—a bit of banter, and who claim that freedom of speech is one of their human rights, whether or not it causes offence. It should be noted that the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country, and that right is commonly subject to limitations.

The topic transcends the usual petty party politics. It is not about attributing blame, or even urging a particular Department to take ownership of the issue. Indeed, I am aware that Members on both sides of the House have been victims of trolling, as have I—although of course we all know that parliamentarians are pachyderms, with little or no feeling, so it should not bother us. But it does bother the public. My hope is that all parties will work together to reach a solution and take trolling seriously, specifically RIP trolling.

As I shall set out at the end of my speech, the solution may or may not take the form of legislation, but if a change in the law is required, so be it. In that spirit, I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department for meeting me at the end of last year. Since then, I have met, among others, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), representatives from Merseyside police, Facebook and the Crown Prosecution Service. Although some of those meetings were less productive than others, there was universal recognition that trolling exists, and that it is grossly offensive and it is escalating. With such a rise in prominence has come greater scrutiny of the laws that govern its practice and punishment. The starting point must be to see how we can improve the way trolling is prevented, policed and punished. That would be preferable to trying to get Parliament to act, as the wheels of justice turn slowly.

Trolling has become a sick hobby for some and an increasing problem for dedicated police trying to monitor and respond to reported cases. Trolls are individuals intent on upsetting and offending people, often in their hour of grief and mourning, for a kind of pleasure that I must admit is totally alien to me and, I would think, to every person in this Chamber.

I want to bring to the House’s attention the case of Georgia Varley, who was just 16 years old when she slipped from a platform under the carriage of a departing train at James Street station in Liverpool. Her devastated family and friends set up a dedicated memorial page on Facebook to inform others of Georgia’s death and as a means of demonstrating their outpouring of love and affection for this popular schoolgirl. But in the days and weeks that followed, sick, vile and truly grotesque individuals whose identity was hidden through an online alias abused Georgia’s site. Most had never even visited Liverpool and certainly had no knowledge of Georgia, but they thought it would be fun to exploit her death.

I would never dream of repeating the vicious insults directed at Georgia and her family, because it would be wrong for them to appear in Hansard. Indeed, I believe that it would probably give the trolls a kick if they thought that outcome was the product of their vindictiveness. However, I have directed my staff to keep records of certain trolls, and I would be happy to place copies in the House of Commons Library if requested so that Members can ascertain for themselves the truly depraved nature of the content.

Part of the problem is that a degree of professionalism is associated with some trolls that might be too sophisticated for our laws to combat in their current guise. The relevant legislation on this matter predates the birth of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which were not launched until 2004 and 2006 respectively. In fact, since becoming actively involved in this issue, I have increasingly come to understand that the law surrounding trolling is a minefield. If only Thomas Jefferson had been right when he said:

“Laws are made for men of ordinary understanding and should, therefore, be construed by the ordinary rules of common sense. Their meaning is not to be sought for in metaphysical subtleties which may make anything mean everything or nothing at pleasure.”

A whole plethora of associated legislation could potentially be used against trolls, but there is nothing specific to outlaw the practice itself. The Suicide Act 1961 can still be used against those who encourage others to take their own lives, and it was specifically amended, with websites in mind and to simplify the law, by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. We also have the Telecommunications Act 1984; section 4a of the Public Order Act 1986; the Computer Misuse Act 1990, which created precedent by extending the time limit to investigate cases for summary offence; and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, under section 3(2) of which claimants may pursue a civil case for damages. Those are all relevant pieces of legislation, but none specifically identifies trolling as an offence, and every single one was passed before Facebook or Twitter existed. Even section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 predates social media, but it suggests that someone can be found to have broken the law if a message is sent that is

“grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.”

It goes on to say that the section

“targets false messages and persistent misuse intended to cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety”.

The Crown Prosecution Service clarified this on its website by stating:

“If a message sent is grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or false, it is irrelevant whether it was received. The offence is one of sending, so it is committed when the sending takes place.”

The CPS also confirms:

“A person guilty of an offence under the same section shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine or to both.”

The crime is dealt with under the fixed penalty scheme. However, there is a degree of subjectivity when we talk about causing offence. Trolls often write that they do not know what might cause offence to a particular individual and so cannot be accused of so doing.

We can already see the pitfalls. There is ambiguity over whether a six-month sentence is long enough in order to send a message to trolls that such behaviour is not to be tolerated and, by extension, to seek fundamentally to change behaviour. There are also questions about whether, given the complexities surrounding false identities, there is enough time for the police fully to investigate complaints and for the CPS to deem whether a successful prosecution is likely. The Guardian recently reported that nearly 8% of Facebook profiles were fake, which equates to approximately 83 million accounts worldwide. This has become not just a national but an international problem.

The other relevant piece of legislation is the Malicious Communications Act 1988, section 1 of which deals with the sending to another of

“any article which is indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat, or which is false, provided there is intent to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient”.

The offence covers letters, writing of all descriptions, electronic communications, photographs and other images in material form, tape recordings, films and video recordings.

I believe that the greatest strength of both that Act and the Communications Act 2003 is that for an offence to be deemed to have been committed, the intended recipient of the message never has to receive it. That is pivotal in prosecuting RIP trolls, because more often than not the intended recipient of their bile is deceased. It is therefore right and proper that it is the sending that is an offence, and that proof is not needed that a person has received the communication in question. There still has to be intent to cause offence or distress.

There have recently been two prosecutions for racially motivated tweets. One was sent to the former footballer Stan Collymore and the other was sent in the wake of the collapse on the pitch of Fabrice Muamba. Both were vile comments, but the sanctions imposed by judges were met with condemnation from certain sections of the public and disdain from others for being too lenient.

We must work harder to raise the issue of trolling so that people know unequivocally that they should not say something online that they would not say face to face. The case of Natasha MacBryde, which was mentioned earlier, is perhaps the most high-profile case of trolling, because an 18-week prison sentence was handed out to Sean Duffy, who admitted that he was hooked on the sick craze. That is far and away the severest sentence that a court has handed out to date.

Many months before the release of the Hillsborough independent panel report, I spoke to Facebook about a page that had been set up on its site called “96 Wasn’t Enough”. It informed me that the content of the page and/or postings on the site did not constitute a breach of its community standards, and that there was no need to remove the page because there was not an implied or explicit threat. I add that I do not condone trolling by anyone. Alan Davies received some horrendous abuse over his ill-judged comments about Hillsborough, and I was quick to condemn hate messages aimed towards him and his family. I think it is better to educate than to abuse.

Trolling is not about normal social discourse, or even about disagreeing vehemently with someone who has a contrary opinion. The test should be quite simple: would someone be happy to put their name to what they have said under a false identity? We are not talking about cases of whistleblowing, in which it would be understandable to anonymise a person’s details. If the answer to that question is that someone would not be happy to be identified, we have to ask why. Why would somebody need to hide their identity under such circumstances?

Having listened carefully to what Facebook had to say when I met it, I have developed a better understanding of what it determines to be acceptable. Although I may disagree with the grey areas within the boundaries that social media sites impose, I understand that they are as much about the sharing of information as they are about people getting a better understanding of local, national, regional and international cultures, events in history and universally famous tragedies. However, I have severe reservations about the ability of social media sites to understand fully the gross offence caused by certain types of message, especially to families and friends of deceased victims. Surely common sense must prevail. All too often, the benefit of the doubt falls in favour of the rights of the troll over those of their innocent target.

Trolling is not about disagreeing with another person’s perspective. It is not about telling somebody straight what they think about them, or that they think that the other person is wrong. Trolling is not even about arguing with somebody online about sensitive issues. It is about setting out, intentionally and deliberately, to cause gross offence to another, or to say something menacing.

I reiterate that I hope that tonight’s debate is just the beginning. I am keen to hear others’ views and to learn new things about trolling. Will the Minister therefore answer the following questions? Do the Government fully appreciate the escalating problem of trolling? What monitoring of activity are they undertaking? Are the Government satisfied with the prosecution rate of trolls, or does the Minister believe, like me, that the number of trolling cases far outweighs that of convictions? Has the Minister met the police and/or the CPS recently to discuss the obstacles to prosecuting trolls? What time frame have the Government scheduled to look at ways in which to address the problem? Could an amendment to legislation be made in this Parliament, if the Minister believes that to be appropriate? What discussions has he had with social media sites about the need to strengthen the community standards that govern best practice on them? Does he agree that they could and should do far more to aid the police with prosecuting trolls?

I believe that the law of the land needs to be constantly updated to reflect social and technological advancements. However, I also appreciate that, in the case of trolling, concerted effort by Parliament to change online culture may well prove to be just as important as an amendment to existing legislation.

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