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Friday, 14 September 2012

Twitter 'Trolls': The problem with censorship

Over the last few days, Sydney's Daily Telegraph has been running a populist campaign calling for government censorship, or namely 'new laws' to deal with abusive 'trolls' on Twitter. These calls are made with the best of intentions, but could lead to sinister consequences. I myself being a conservative blogger and Twitter user have copped my fair share of criticism online and through by blog. My view is, why not just ignore these faceless cowards? I don't know them, and couldn't care less what they think.
In the United Kingdom, much harsher laws have been enacted, most likely with good intentions, that have had serious implications for freedom of speech. One such example of a sinister consequence was the case of Liam Stacey, a 21 year-old biology University student from South Wales. He was weeks away from graduating and possibly becoming a forensic scientist.  Earlier this year Liam was jailed for 56 days  for breaching section 4A of the Public Order Act, after stupid comments he made on Twitter whilst drunk after Wales beat Ireland in rugby. This was the comment he made:
''LOL, F*** Muamba. He’s dead''. He made this comments after black Tottenham player Fabrice Muamba collapsed in the middle of a game. These comments are heartless and stupid. But do they warrant time in prison, especially when a Muslim gang who attacked a woman yelling 'kill the white slag' walked free? The gang who got a suspended sentence after kicking the victim in the head repeatedly and pulling her hair, also called the victim a 'white bitch' - despite these racial taunts. The out-of-touch magistrate Judge Robert Brown decided the attack was not racially motivated, and accepted the gang may have felt the 'victim of unreasonable force', after the victims boyfriend protected her. The thugs faced five years imprisonment for causing actual bodily harm for this hate crime.

In Liam Stacey's case, the judge declared I have no choice but to impose an immediate custodial sentence to reflect the public outrage at what you have done. This is the same judge Justice Wyn Williams, who in 2011 allowed a truly evil woman who killed her autistic son with a coat belt in an Airport hotel room to walk free, telling her she had 'been punished enough'. This of course didn't apply to racist Liam Stacey, who despite being booted from Swansea University and being vilified and condemned by the press and Twitter users alike.

Another example is Paul Chambers. In January 2010, Paul made this comment on Twitter ''"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" The airport, in South Yorkshire was closed due to snow. In one weeks time, he was due to fly to Belfast in Northern Ireland to meet his girlfriend. Days later he was arrested.
He was prosecuted under section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003, which prohibits sending "by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character". In May 2010, he was convicted and fined £1,000. Fortunately in July 2012, he was finally acquitted at the High Court. The prosecution cost taxpayers millions.

A more recent event was during the London Olympics. A 17-year-old, which the cowboys from Dorset Police insisted on calling a 'man' was arrested after sending 'malicious' messages to British diver Tom Daley, after he finished fourth in an event, and missed out on a medal. The message was not threatening. It was stupid, petty and mean: 'You let your dad down i hope you know that'. The Olympians father, Rob had died from brain cancer last year.  Daley responded, exposing the 'troll' : 'After giving it my all... you get idiots sending me this...'
The 17-year-old then apologised on reflection:
I'm sorry mate i just wanted you to win cause its the olympics I'm just annoyed we didn't win I'm sorry tom accept my apology.'
He later added: 'please i don't want to be hated I'm just sorry you didn't win i was rooting for you pal to do britain all proud just so upset.'
The 'troll' had hardly had a prize-winning upbringing. He lived alone at a guesthouse, lived on benefits and his father has 11 children. He also claimed he did not know the divers father had died.
The Daily Telegraph has pointed to threats made against Laura Dundovic, by a clearly insane 'troll' who threatened to cut off her head and shoot her in the street for not returning advances. Already in the case of explicit death threats, action can be taken, under existing laws. Perhaps Twitter users should also be able to block abusive users.
But Governments love to regulate. Governments love new laws, and certainly with a populist campaign behind new laws, they will find it hard to resist. I rarely agree with the Greens. They themselves love more government regulation. But Senator Scott Ludlam was absolutely spot on when he said 'This is hardly a place for additional government intervention'
As the old saying goes, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me' Let's ignore the pathetic trolls who thrive on oxygen and public attention. Let's rise above them.
UPDATE: I note that the Telegraph say they are not calling for 'new laws', just more harsh and rigorous enforcement of current laws

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