Laws to deal with internet “trolling” already exist in the UK and newly-proposed legislation makes many worried about democracy and freedom of expression Gavin Macfadyen, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, told RT.
RT: How will the law define ‘trolling’ exactly – there’s no common definition even among the Internet community?
Gavin Macfadyen: Indeed, almost everyone that one speaks to has no idea how you define this because jocular speech, small-scale derisive remarks can cause the same moral panic as this apparently does. Therefore, it is rather dangerous because the whole thing is ballooning out of control. The sad thing is that the laws already exist to deal with this. If you threaten somebody’s life on the internet or you threaten them with a serious crime you can be done for it, you can do prison time for that. So nobody understands quite why are the laws being proposed in this way. It is particularly savage because there is a degree of hypocrisy about these charges of online terrorism. From the very people who are bombing others around the world, it is a little strange. There is a kind of moral panic here, a political panic, could be seen by politicians to deal with what is really a small-scale social problem.
They want to politicize these anti-social, these small incidents of anti-social behavior which nobody excuses. They all are very unpleasant. Nobody would like to be subjected to these things. But they are tiny, they are small scale, they don’t represent a social phenomenon. It is really a few extraordinarily unpleasant individuals. But then to construct, as they appear to be doing, a whole set of laws of a draconian kind is most peculiar and it raises the sense that they very much wanted to increase the number of laws available on the internet to stop criticism, to stop people who say things they don’t like. It seems to me and for many others here that the internet is a public place, it is not a private place. And in any public place there is a role for criticism, there is a role for taking a different view… And that has to be protected for anybody, no matter what they politics are. So what we have to do I think is to teach people how to anonymize themselves, how to be anonymous on the internet if they really want a peaceful life and they don’t want to engage in social dialogue. They have to find a place in a private sector of the internet… to conduct their affairs.
RT: There are already laws prohibiting extremism, threats or insulting – why is that not enough?
GM: You can certainly ridicule them. You can give them what they give to others. I think that difficulty is not that these people are right or have some unusual right to say vicious things against other people. The problem is that when a state gives laws that make this illegal they can use those laws as we have seen in the past here against ordinary dissent. Suddenly these laws which were intended for a very small number of lunatics who give worrisome behavior to other people and are threatening to other people. It gives the state powers to go after other people as well.
We find a situation, for example, in Britain where we have more CCTV cameras pointed at the population than any other country in the world. There are as many in Britain largely as there are in the United States. It is an extraordinary situation. Yes, that hasn’t increased the police or the state’s ability to stop much crime. It has no meaningful statistical impact. Why are they doing that? After the Snowden revelations we have a sense that all these laws and impositions and intrusive behavior of the state is to a purpose. And that is what alarms a lot of us that we all mind taking action perhaps against people who are really ugly and do ugly things. But none of it means that the state increases its armory of laws against ordinary people and against ordinary dissent. And that is the worry. That they have so often done it in the past, why won’t they do it now!
RT: Could the government exploit the new legislature as an instrument of Internet control?
GM: The difficulty is that they would try to track these people by their IP addresses, by other technical means, and then seek them out and arrest them. This is nominally, or charge them at least. And that is the chilling effect of this because what is to prevent any politician from then saying: “I received a terribly threatening phone call from this constituent of mine. And that you should look up this person and get him arrested.” Then you find a very serious problem. There is no way to stop it.
As I said in the beginning one of the problems is that the laws to prevent this already exist. You can be taken to court if you threaten somebody. If you say really terrible things about somebody that could cause them harm in some important way then you can be arrested for that. But we don’t have a situation where we need new laws to do that and that raises a suspension amongst many people who are worried about the political democracy and worried about freedom of expression. You can prosecute these people now. Why do they need special laws to do it? And I think that is to solve a political problem that government has. That isn’t the real one in the normal sense of the word.