Internet Morality and Policing Harassment: Punishing the Trolls

Reuters / Jorge Silva

It has been in the works for some time, but the British government is showing keenness to enact laws that will punish those guilty of Internet “trolling”. According to Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, “This is a law to combat cruelty — and marks our determination to take a stand against a baying cyber-mob.”

None of this is actually new, at least when it comes to such policies of speech control on the Sceptred Isle. The policy change was already flagged in March this year when an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill was proposed making it possible for a Crown Court, rather than magistrates, to try cases of online harassment.[1] Prison sentences from up to two years will be doled out.

Internet trolls have already been the subject of legislative, and criminal attention in the UK, with the current maximum sentence one of six months under the Malicious Communications Act. Two years ago, Nicola Brookes obtained a court order compelling Facebook to produce the IP addresses of those who attacked her online.

Frank Zimmerman also received a suspended jail sentence in 2012 for his dedicated haranguing of the Tory politician Louise Mensch, MP. Commentary then focused on Zimmerman’s appearance, giving an unruly, irritable citizen of cyberspace face and form. Dominique Jackson of the Daily Mail provided one reaction: “Images of a long-haired dishevelled and straggly-bearded Zimmerman in the press this week conformed closely to our stereotype of the internet troll: a cowardly loner, spending hours hunched over the keyboard, spitting out minatory venom from the relative safety of a cranky pseudonym and a potentially anonymous IP address.”[2]

Such images are misplaced. The modern Internet troll may well conform to a Zimmerman stereotype. Or they might be like Brenda Leyland, who was found dead in a hotel room earlier this month after an encounter with Sky News over alleged trolling of Kate and Gerry McCann, whose daughter went missing in Portugal in 2007.

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