Anonymity, trolls – and defamation?

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.

Anonymity matters

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.

Heroes and villains?

I wrote a piece a little while ago about Julian Assange – you can find it here – which amongst other things suggested that just because you consider someone a hero for one part of their lives doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily something other than a hero in another way. Events this week have reminded me of the other side of that coin: that just because someone might be seen as a villain in one way, doesn’t mean that everything about them is despicable. What’s more, if we  believe in human rights, it doesn’t mean that ‘villains’ shouldn’t have those human rights. One particular such ‘villain’ has been in the news these last few days: Max Mosley.

Before I say anything more, I need to make it clear that my background is very left wing – I have grandparents, step-grandparents and great aunts who were communists. I myself had the nickname ‘commie bastard’ at college – though all that really meant is that I was the only member of the Labour Party at what was then the extremely right-wing Pembroke College Cambridge. As such, Max Mosley is someone who I ‘instinctively’ look on with extreme distaste. His father, Oswald Mosley, was a particular figure of hate for my family – in case anyone is unaware, Oswald Mosley was the founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists, and a supporter of Hitler. Hitler was a guest at his wedding. I still consider myself to be very much on the political left. Max Mosley, not just as his father’s son, but as someone who represents extreme wealth and the excesses connected with it, is not someone that I have anything but instinctive dislike for.

…but just as even ‘heroes’ like Assange need to be subject to the law when appropriate (as I argued before), even those you dislike intensely need to be accorded rights. Indeed, one of the key tests of whether you really believe in human rights is whether you really grant them to those you dislike. Many people have been tested on those grounds over the last months and hardly come up smelling of roses – the attitude to the death of Gaddafi is perhaps the most extreme example. For Max Mosley, the test is simpler and should be less taxing. However much I might dislike what he seems to represent, he still deserves privacy. What the newspapers did to him was, in my view, unacceptable – and he was right to fight against them. Personally I thought he came across well in the Leveson inquiry. It wasn’t Mosley that looked like the villain here – and his work in supporting other victims of phone hacking is something to be applauded too.

…which brings me onto the other ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ of the last week: the press. If you listened as I did to the testimony of the many witnesses to the Leveson inquiry, from Mosley himself to the celebs like Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and Sienna Miller, to JK Rowling, to the families of Milly Dowler and Madelaine McCann, and to Margaret Watson, it’s hard not to see the press as venal, vicious, unprincipled and unfair. The instinctive reaction again is to punish them, to clamp down on them, to restrict them. And yet that’s not the whole story either – because we also have to remember how the story itself broke, though the work of the Guardian. We have to remember how the MPs’ expenses scandal was revealed by the Telegraph. How the cricket match-fixing scandal was uncovered by the now-departed News of the World. Just as Assange and Mosley could be heroes in one way and might be villains in another, so are the press. We need to look at the balance, and remember both sides to all their stories.

How is that balance maintained? The most important thing to remember is that it’s a dynamic balance, and that we have to remain vigilant. Don’t overreact – and that’s an easy temptation particularly in relation to the press, and if the stories about Max Mosley planning to sue Google are true, they would be a prime example of such overreaction, and something I plan to write about separately – but don’t be afraid of action either. Even in terms of the press, there are two currently very different things going on right now. At the same time as any action emerging from Leveson might produce restrictions on press activity in relation to privacy, the potential changes to the draft defamation bill might produce greater freedom for the press in relation to defamation. Instinctively, again, that might be right for people of my political perspective – defamation law has often been seen as a tool for the rich, while privacy should (though often isn’t, as I’ve argued before) be something of as much interest to the ‘insignificant’ as the rich and famous. Both the potential shifts in balance, from Leveson and from changes to libel law, could well be appropriate. Let’s hope it works out that way.