Freedom to Speak, Not to HatePosted on

Imagine, if you will, a situation where your phone rings and on the other end of the line is an individual who delivers a diatribe of threats, bigoted abuse and violent imagery. You’d call the police, right?

And if those calls continued you might seek a restraining order?

What if those threats weren’t delivered by telephone but by email, or over the internet or other social media. Is that different?

The journalist Richard Bacon, when investigating so-called trolling for a television documentary, spoke about his own experiences of online threats and expressed fear about the possibility of cyber attacks “crossing over from the cyber world into the real world”. Distinguishing between the real and cyber world is a curious part of our current understanding. People of Bacon’s (and my own) generation still see a dividing line between 20th Century communication (the telephone and actually talking to people) and online communication. But email and online communication is not abstract. It is real. The only difference between a sinister individual taking the time to cut letters out of magazines and post a threatening note to someone and the same individual sending the missive using an anonymous email address or Twitter account is the time and effort which each activity takes. And that is the key. Committing crimes online is easier. So people do it more. It is also more easy to trace culprits as each act online leaves a muddy footprint. Whereas the person who desecrates a magazine to send a menacing message merely needs to wear gloves to cover up the crime there are no “gloves” to hide an IP address or other identifying information, something more sophisticated is required.

The internet often stands as a symbol for libertarian free speech. The theory being that the internet cannot be regulated therefore people should be completely free to express what they want. There are few that would extend that kind of freedom to the posting pro terrorism messages or the sharing of child pornography, however, free speech, particularly in the United States, is often used as an argument to protect actions which should not be accepted in a civilised society. The freedom to form ideas and express them is one of the cornerstones of a good democracy, however, dogmatic protection of the freedom to express all ideas, no matter how harmful to others, does not progress a civilised society. Laws exist to help us shape the type of society that the democracy wants. If there are no laws to prevent damaging lies (defamation), intrusions into individuals’ lives (privacy), prejudice to others (hate speech) threats and violence towards others (malicious communications) then we create a society where liars, bullies, bigots and thugs thrive.

The law in the UK is often criticised (by those with an interest) of being out-dated and not responding to new technology. This is not entirely fair. The law is well-balanced and still applicable in the internet age. The rash of criminal prosecutions for hate-filled online communications shows that application of the law is now catching up and we, as a society, are beginning to realise the dangerous possibilities that exist with the instant access at everyone’s fingertips.

But prosecutions remain a rarity. Daily there are countless examples online of communications which would be considered a breach of the Malicious Communications Act or the Protection from Harassment Act, however, police resources cannot (and should not have to) deal with every single instance. Often either a private prosecution or civil claim is necessary to prevent the attacks or seek justice or, increasingly, private individuals and their representatives are pulling together evidence and dossiers which enable the police to take forward charges against guilty individuals.

This is not about stifling true free speech. It is about protecting rights and stopping hatred and threats.

As prosecutions increase, and the public starts to realise the consequences of online abuse, it seems clear that the lights have come on and those who are left standing in the shoes of the liars, bullies, bigots and thugs are more often left with their own lives and reputations in tatters. Just ask Liam Stacey.



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