This war on trolls is no fairytale
Why can’t we be more like Billy Goats Gruff and butt online trolls into oblivion, instead of involving the police?
Time was when people – and goats – dealt with grumpy trolls by playing on their greed. Remember the story of the Billy Goats Gruff? Remember the three goats who wanted to cross the river to eat the better grass on the other side? Remember how when the two smaller goats crossed the bridge, the grumpy troll threatened to eat them, only to be placated by a promise of a bigger goat following shortly? Then remember how the billy goat simply butted the troll back under the bridge and joined his little brothers by the decent grass?
Halcyon days indeed. Today, those who have become known as ‘trolls’ – lonely bored weirdos with little better to do than post threatening messages on social-media sites to people they don’t know – have a lot in common with the trolls of yesteryear. They are grumpy, threatening, and probably smell pretty awful as well. But today, those who become the target of trolls are not reaching for a billy goat – they are reaching for the law.
Meet Nichola Brookes. Brookes became the target of cyber opprobrium when she posted a message of support for pop indie X Factor cretin Frankie Cocozza. At a time when most of the internet was having a go at Coccazza for taking cocaine and generally being a bit of a muppet, Brookes posted ‘keep you chin up Frankie, they will move on to someone else soon’ on his Facebook page. Within 24 hours Brookes herself was feeling the clickitivist wrath, with 100 messages being left on her Facebook page calling her a ‘desperate paedophile’ and a ‘drug addict’. The trolls accused her of circulating child pornography and even published her address.
Brookes called the lawyers and last week the High Court granted what is known as a ‘Norwich Pharmacol’ order against Facebook, forcing it to disclose the IP addresses of those involved in berating Brookes. Cyber-bullying charities applauded the decision on the basis that the information revealed by Facebook could be used to bring prosecutions against the trolls under the Malicious Communications Act.
The judgement comes at a time when many are applauding attempts to limit internet anonymity. For example, Conservative MP Louise Mensch has been described as ‘selflessly brave’ for reporting one of her cyber-bullies to the police. Now, with the judgement of the High Court in Brookes’ case, it seems likely that Mensch and her supporters will get the precedent they need to making the arrest and charging of trolls a part of everyday life.
A Norwich Pharmacol order forces a party to disclose information which may then be used to sue another party or to bring a prosecution. If you can establish that the third party may have been involved in ‘wrongdoing’, and if it is in the ‘interests of justice’ to bring them to trial, the court can order the disclosure of material even though the target of the order may never be the target of litigation themselves. This is why Facebook, as a company which was only involved in ‘wrongdoing’ in the sense that it allowed certain comments to be posted, could be forced to disclose the identity of the internet trolls.
This judgement is a disaster for internet anonymity and internet freedom in general. The use of Norwich Pharamacol orders in this context means that unaccaountable High Court judges will decide what constitutes wrongdoing online. The costs of defending such an order mean that internet service providers will either have to become more censorious or, more likely, make it easier for third parties to access user information without the need for a court order. It is worth noting that the Lib-Con government is also attempting to limit internet freedom through statute. The draft Communications Bill, which has become known as the Snooper’s Charter because it gives greater power to the state to access private communications, is set to add statutory force to the assault on internet anonymity.
Of course, no sensible person would defend the activities of many of these internet trolls . The ability to post views without disclosing who you are has made the internet an odd place to have a discussion. The Scottish dramatist David Greig captured this well in his play Brewers Fayre, in which he said, with reference to internet anonymity: ‘The human mind has been given the power to form itself into words and be broadcast without reference to the authority of any individual mind.’ The kind of petulant abuse levelled at Brookes and others, views simply spouted into the public arena with no one willing to stand by them, is hardly what John Stuart Mill had in mind when he called free speech ‘the freedom above all others’.
But these grumpy trolls should not be used as an excuse to curb internet anonymity, which remains fundamental to our freedom online. The ability to behave anonymously online does not just give rise to grumpy trolls, but also to innovative and creative ways of interacting with each other. Throughout its history, the internet has been celebrated as a space where information can be exchanged freely without any need to defer to a higher authority. Now, this untrammelled freedom has come to be seen as a problem by successive governments desperate to control more and more of our behaviour at the keyboard.
We should resist these authoritarian measures to restrict internet freedom and argue for the right to behave freely, and anonymously, online. I never thought I would say this, but perhaps we should take a lesson in resilience from the three goats. As the state creeps further and further into our online lives, we should take the opportunity to ram it back under the bridge, rather than invite it to come and eat the decent grass.
Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.