A headline on the BBC’s website this morning reads:
“Websites to be forced to identify trolls under new measures”
Beneath it, the first sentence says something somewhat different:
“Websites will soon be forced to identify people who have posted defamatory messages online”
It’s interesting that the two ideas are considered equivalent. Are ‘trolls’ those who post defamatory messages online? Are those who post defamatory messages online ‘trolls’? For me, at least, neither of those statements are really true – though of course the idea of a ‘troll’ is something that’s hard to define with any precision. Trolls, for me at least (and I’m a bit of an old hand in internet terms), are people who try to provoke and offend, to get people to ‘bite’ – not necessarily or even particularly regularly through the use of defamation. They use a variety of tactics, from just saying stupid and annoying things to the most direct and offensive – and intimidating – things imaginable. Defamation may indeed be one of their tools, but at best it’s a side issue.
Taking that a step further, the trigger for this appears to have been the Nicola Brookes case (see e.g. here) – which was about bullying, abuse and harassment much more than it was about defamation. Sure, being called a paedophile and a drug-dealer was technically defamatory, but I don’t think defamation was what bothered Nicola Brookes. She wasn’t worrying about her reputation – she was being harassed, even ‘tortured’ in her own words.
It’s not about defamation
So why are the stories about defamation – and why is Ken Clarke suggesting changes to the Defamation Bill to deal with them? Are there other motives here? Is there something quite different going on? I suspect so – and I fear that this may be yet another attempt to use a hideous event to bring in powers that can and will be used for something quite different from that which the event concerns.
We already have the law to deal with trolls and bullies – which is why Nicola Brookes won her case, and why the man who trolled Louise Mensch was convicted, and quite rightly, in my opinion. Harassment and bullying needs dealing with – but we have to be very careful about how we balance things here. Anonymity may sometimes be used to cloak bullies and trolls – but it is also crucial to protect whistleblowers, to protect victims of domestic abuse from being tracked down by their abusers, to enable people to express important and valid opinions without fear of oppression or retribution.
This may not appear obvious in a country like ours – but what about in places like China? In Syria? The extremes demonstrate the point – and when situations become more extreme, even ‘liberal’ governments can reveal their authoritarian tendencies. We need to be sure that we don’t set in place the infrastructure – both legal and technical – that allows those authoritarian tendencies to be used too easily. My favourite quote, from the excellent Bruce Schneier, is apt here (again):
“It’s bad civic hygiene to build an infrastructure that can be used to facilitate a police state.” (see his blog here)
Acting to give too many powers (and imposing too many duties) to break anonymity would be a step in this direction – particularly through confusing (intentionally or otherwise) defamation and trolling! We should resist it, and resist it strongly.