You may have already seen yesterday’s news that the Secretary of State for Justice, Kenneth Clarke, has proposed changes to British defamation laws which could see websites obliged to hand over personal details (including IP address) of those posting defamatory messages online.
A number of high-profile cases of online trolling and cyberbullying have become big news of late including those of Nicola Brookes and Louise Mensch MP. The idea behind the change to the law is about shifting responsibility for user-generated content from the web platforms (who are currently treated as the ‘publisher’ under existing libel laws) to the user themselves.
We think that the change is a sensible one. It simply doesn’t make sense for websites like Facebook (25m UK users) and Twitter (10m UK users) to be held responsible for every word written on their platforms – policing content would be an impossible in terms of both the scale of the job and lack of context for judging whether offending posts are indeed defamatory or threatening.
Last night Al Jazeera English interviewed me about this and asked why I think the changes proposed are a good thing for our freedom of speech. So why do I think that? Well, at the moment, as a user of social networks and blogs, if I take offence at something someone says to me, I can contact the platform in question and demand that I want the content removed. The platform, lacking context and in fear of being responsible for potentially libellous or otherwise illegal content more often than not will just remove it – regardless of whether a law has been broken or not. And if the law is broken it would take extremely costly legal action (as in the case of Nicola Brookes) to get a website to reveal the identities of the law breaker.
Under the proposed changes, if I feel genuinely aggrieved and can provide context to prove I have a case, not only can I have the offending content removed, I can have the identity of the troll revealed to me so that I can take appropriate legal action.
The message: that trolls and cyberbullies with fake names and photo-less profiles can no longer hide behind a cloak of anonymity when they fail to act responsibly online.
How to avoid being the victim of trolls
Anyone who engages online – both individuals and brands – is at risk of becoming the victims of trolling. Here are some top tips to help you avoid being a victim:
1. Privacy settings
Tightly controlled privacy settings will help you control who can engage with you online and the places where they can do it. The tighter these are the less likely it is that trolls will be able to infringe on your most ‘personal’ places online – inbox, Facebook wall and in your newsfeeds etc
2. Know your enemy
Is the perpetrator really a troll? What can you find out about them by looking at their profile? Clearly using a pseudonym? Faceless profile photo? Lots of activity on their profile in a similarly negative vein? You may well have yourself a troll.
3. Don’t feed the trolls
A piece of advice I often to give to brands I work with who are worried about trolling is that 99% of the time the best thing to say is nothing at all.Trolls thrive on the attention they get and knowing that they’ve caused offence or got a similar reaction. If you can, avoid getting involved and tell your friends and family (or indeed colleagues) to do the same and they’ll usually just go away.