Internet Trolls v The Law

15th August 2013 Media Law

There has been a lot of discussion in the media recently about the problem of "internet trolls and what can be done about them.

Once upon a time, trolls were fictional trouble-makers who involved themselves in various fairy tale related scrapes. These days, the modern troll spends his (or her) time on the internet posting offensive messages and getting into trouble with the law as a result. Times change.

Internet trolling clearly has the capacity to both blight and, potentially, destroy people's lives. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there have been calls for the government to consider legislating against internet trolls. Recent high profile cases have involved cyber-bullying resulting in the tragic death of a teenage girl, as well as sexually explicit and violent messages being sent to various high profile women via Twitter.

Whilst calls for new legislation are understandable, such action is arguably unnecessary. This is because the law already provides tools for dealing with serious trolling behaviour.

For example, communications (including online messages) which constitute credible threats can already be prosecuted under a raft of different statutes such as the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003. Similarly, communications which are grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false may also be caught by these statutes. When dealing with such cases, criminal prosecutors must consider whether the evidential threshold is satisfied and whether a prosecution is actually in the public interest. They also need to bear in mind that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects freedom of speech and only permits restrictions where these are necessary and proportionate.

It is also worth noting that victims of trolling will often also have recourse to the civil law. Communications which specifically target an individual (or individuals) may constitute harassment for the purposes of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (which also carries criminal sanctions).

There have been various examples of people being prosecuted for "trolling behaviour. For example, in April 2013, Reece Elliott from South Shields admitted one count of making a threat to kill and eight of sending grossly offensive messages via Facebook. Mr Elliott had posted abusive comments on the tribute page of an American girl who had died in a car crash. When challenged about the content of his messages, he then sent more messages, but containing threats of violence. The messages were posted following the Newtown school shootings in the US in which 26 people died, and this resulted in 3000 school children missing school the next day. Mr Elliott was sentenced to 2 years in prison at Newcastle Crown Court.

The problems in terms of dealing with trolls may be more practical than "legal. One problem is that in the light of the "austerity funding cuts to Police services there are very limited resources available to properly investigate and prosecute complaints. Twitter is considering introducing a "report abuse button to help ease the trolling problem. However, it is difficult to see how this could work as an effective solution because an enormous number of communications are sent via Twitter every day.

As the saying goes, "if it is illegal off-line, it is also illegal on-line. The internet is not the wild-west. Clearly, trolling online will never disappear altogether, just as "real life bullying in is unlikely to vanish overnight. Whilst all potential solutions to the problem should be considered, it will probably take further criminal prosecutions and greater education of people regarding acceptable on-line behaviour before internet trolling becomes less frequent.

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Nick McAleenan is a Partner located in Manchester in our Media & Reputation Management; Data Protection & Privacy department

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