Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Toby Young on the Malicious Communications Act

A good post from Toby Young:

As a blogger, my first reaction on learning about the jailing of Sean Duffy, an Internet "troll", was jubilation. "Next time some Left-wing critic of free schools posts an anonymous comment beneath one of my posts accusing me of raping a 14-year-old schoolgirl I can report him to the police," I thought.

But on further reflection, I've come to the conclusion that Sean Duffy should not have been jailed, no matter how stomach-churning his comments. Duffy was prosecuted under the Malicious Communications Act, legislation first passed in 1988 that made it illegal for someone to send a letter which was indecent and/or grossly offensive. As it stands, the legislation is an affront to free speech, not least because people have a perfect right to be offensive. But to broaden it to include anonymous comments left on Facebook pages or beneath blog posts is completely unacceptable.

Quite apart from the question of whether offensiveness should be unlawful – and I don't think it should – there's the issue of who should judge whether a particular comment is grossly offensive. Is it sufficient for one person to claim they're offended? That's too broad since virtually everything is offensive to someone. But if we don't rely on wholly subjective criteria, how should offensiveness be defined? It seems far too open-ended and woolly to be the grounds for curtailing free speech. If we condone it in the case of Sean Duffy – whose remarks were unambiguously offensive – we make it harder to object in more ambiguous cases
He concludes:
I've often complained about being abused by trolls, particularly on Twitter. Nevertheless, I don't wish to see any of them sent to prison... Their existence is a price worth paying for unrestricted free speech.
I quite agree. And I couldn't resist adding a comment from a technical angle:
There's plenty that the grieving family could have done to prevent this abuse, without resorting to the police. For example, they didn't need to allow random people to post to the page.

Sure, they shouldn't have had to do this, but I shouldn't have to lock my front door. I do it anyway, because I must.

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