Trolls and libel reform

The pile-up of the news agenda led to something quite odd this week. On Monday, Frank Zimmerman was given a suspended jail sentence for sending abusive, threatening emails to MP Louise Mensch among others.

On Tuesday, the defamation bill had its second reading in parliament.

Somehow, the two issues were treated as one.

The cause of the apparent confusion was clause 5 of the defamation bill, which many represented as forcing Internet Service Providers to hand over details of anonymous “trolls”. This despite the fact that, as Labour’s Sadiq Khan pointed out in the Commons debate, Clause 5 specifically relates to libel and not general cases. Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrat MP, stressed that any steps concerning ISPs and anonymous posts should be voluntary (a concern shared by Index). The guidelines on these steps have not yet appeared, quite probably because they have not been drafted yet.

The term troll seems now to mean “anyone saying anything unpleasant on the internet”. But that simply isn’t correct. Trolling is the deliberate use of inflammatory language in order to provoke a reaction on a message board, or, increasingly, on a social media network. Sending emails to someone threatening to kill their children (which is what Frank Zimmerman did) is not trolling. Nor is it defamation. It is harassment, and already illegal under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 — a law that has its problems, as Paul Chambers of the Twitter Joke Trial will tell you — but is designed for this sort of thing.

Trolling is an issue on the web, as is bullying and harassment. But to conflate either with the matter of libel reform is to seriously confuse the issues.

Update 13/06/12 : The Commons debate on the defamation bill is online now, and worth watching, if only to see how so many issues got thrown into the mix that had absolutely nothing to do with libel. The tone was set by the Democratic Unionist Party’s Ian Paisley Jr, Conservative Nadine Dorries and Labour MP Steve Rotheram, who brought not just what they perceived as “trolling” into the mix, but also, in Dorries case, even alleged copycat suicide groups. Rotheram, bafflingly, warned the house of “professional trolls” learning their trade at “troll academy” (no, me neither).

There’s something about the web that brings out an extraordinary level of somethingmustbedonery in a certain type of politician. As has been remarked on this blog many times, the knowledge that it is possible to shut down or block a website or web page easily seems to make some people think that it is also desirable, and a simple solution that does not seem to carry any of the qualms that, say, supressing the publication of a book would. This view covers not just the illegal but also the merely unpleasant.

Watch the debate here

You can also read Index’s liveblog on the debate here

Limmy, Thatcher, and the Menschevik tendency

Louise Mensch MP has a lot on her plate today. Not only will she be at the heart of one of the biggest news stories of the day — the interrogation of James Murdoch by the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee — she’s also had to find the time to get very, very offended by a comedian, even calling for him to be sacked.

The comedian in question is Brian Limond, known as Limmy (@DaftLimmy) on Twitter.

Limmy first found fame on the web with YouTube videos and podcasts, before getting a series on BBC Scotland (allegedly, the show was never transferred to UK-wide transmission as it was seen as too “parochial”. Anyone who’s ever sat through a Radio 4 comedy slot, seemingly created with only Home Counties Oxbridge graduates in mind, will know how absurd this is).

I should admit I’m a bit of a fan. As well as his brilliant sketches, Limmy is very funny on Twitter, veering between sincerity and absurdity, engaging with fans, creating running themes (such as his excellent bedtime stories) and sometimes plain trolling.

As I went to bed last night, Limmy had changed his avatar to a portrait of Stalin and was boasting of his hatred for Tories.

When I looked at Twitter this morning, Limmy was back to normal, but Louise Mensch was outraged. Limmy had apparently put up an avatar of former Tory PM Margaret Thatcher, with red lines across her throat and eyes and the words “DIE NOW” scrawled across the picture.

Mensch was shocked, apparently.

She didn’t appear to know who Limmy was, or how he operated, but she was still appalled by him, and tweeted that he should sacked (though she didn’t seem to know who he worked for).

She also (and this is where Index comes in) tweeted that Limmy’s joke had “nothing to do with free speech”.

This is wrong. Offensive jokes have absolutely everything to do with free speech. Things that some people may dislike are at the very core of any discussion of free speech. Otherwise free speech is entirely meaningless.

Mensch does have some previous on this type of thing, having supported the idea that social networks could be shut down during times of civil unrest.

So we have perhaps forming here the Menschevik* view: “Free speech is fine as long as nothing that I find disagreeable ever happens.”

I do not ask that Louise Mensch be a free speech zealot (that, literally, is my job). But I would hope that a UK parliamentarian would have a slightly better understanding of liberty.

Limmy, meanwhile, seems to have deleted the Thatcher tweets, though one senses that this his apology is just part of a game he’s quite enjoying.

*Apologies to any surviving Menshiviks. Louise Mensch is clearly more of a Bolshevik when it comes to people who disagree with her, but sometime one must go where the wordplay takes you.

UPDATE: A friend tells me Limmy has left Twitter once before, after a joke went wrong