If you spend any amount of time online (and we know you do because you are reading this article), you are undoubtedly familiar with Internet “trolls.” These are the people who, empowered by the anonymity of the Internet, seemingly only enjoy life when they are making someone else’s life miserable.
Trolls usually operate by reacting to an online opinion post or comment of someone by deliberately posting offensive or inflammatory replies. The goal is to push the buttons of the other person, and the troll gleefully watches as their target becomes upset. In extreme cases, trolling gradually evolves into something worse: cyberbullying, which often involves severe harassment, and even threats of death or serious bodily injury against the other person or their family.
In the United Kingdom, Parliament has decided to take a stand against Internet trolls. A new law has been proposed to amend the 1988 Malicious Communications Act. At the time it was passed, the Malicious Communication Act created a six-month sentence for persons who intentionally send indecent or grossly offensive messages and threats. 1 The law, passed before the age of social media and online comment sections, will be updated to include messages sent through electronic means, and will increase the maximum jail time to two years.
British Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said, “These Internet trolls are cowards who are poisoning our national life. No one would permit such venom in person, so there should be no place for it on social media. That is why we are determined to quadruple the current six-month sentence.” 2
California’s Approach to Cyberbullying and Cyberstalking
California provides for administrative punishment by schools for students who engage in cyberbullying while on campus or at a school activity. Under California Education Code Section 48900(r), schools may suspend or expel students who engage in acts of bullying, which are defined as those acts that induce fear, create a substantial detrimental effect on the physical or mental health of the student, or interfere with another student’s academic and social life by means of a “severe or pervasive physical or verbal act or conduct, including communications made in writing or by means of an electronic act.” 3
In addition, California Penal Code Section 646.9 states that “any person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows or willfully and maliciously harasses another person and who makes a credible threat with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear for his or her safety, or the safety of his or her immediate family is guilty of the crime of stalking.” 4 Under this law, "harasses" means to engage to seriously alarm, annoy, torment, or terrorize another person without a legitimate purpose.
The anti-stalking law includes provisions for threats made via electronic means of communication, which includes threats using a cellphone or a computer. You could be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony under this law. A misdemeanor is punishable by one year in county jail and a $1,000 fine, while a felony conviction could lead to up to five years in state prison and the same fine.
Bullying or Free Speech?
The truly horrific cases of trolling are those that have resulted in the suicides of targeted persons, many of whom were adolescents who could no longer stand the constant badgering of their peers, or worse yet, harassment from adults. 5 In those cases, the primary threats were of embarrassment or social isolation, not physical violence.
The difficulty with laws that are meant to curb cyberbullying is balancing the protection of people’s right to be free from harassment against the protection of people’s right to free speech. Our country was built upon the idea that each person has the right to speak his or her mind, and though that right is not unlimited, establishing a line between debate and harassment is not an easy task.
Examining the language in the British law appears to reveal a much broader and tougher law, as it includes punishment for “indecent or grossly offensive” messages and places threats in a separate category. This appears to mean that the United Kingdom intends to treat merely distasteful online messages the same as it treats threats, and do so with a harsh two-year sentence. Rather than draw a distinction between behaviors that are truly harmful and those that are merely irritating, it appears that Parliament would prefer the British courts lump all of them together and spend their time prosecuting people for being rude.
Anonymity breeds bravery on the Internet. It is easy to become a tough guy behind a screen name and a keyboard. While it is tempting to paint all trolls with the same brush, it is braver to suffer through the merely distasteful and spend valuable resources on the real threats to peace and harmony. California’s approach appears to do a better job of that.
Share Your Feedback With Us
We at Wallin & Klarich would like to hear from you about this topic. Do you agree with either the British or State of California’s approach to Internet trolling? What are some of the reasons you see that would make these laws a good or bad idea? Please feel free to leave your comments below.
1. [Malicious Communication Act 1988 c.27, §1. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1988/27/section/1]↩
2. [BBC News, “Internet trolls face up to two years in jail under new laws,” October 19, 2014, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-29678989.]↩
3. [Cal. Ed. Code §48900(r). http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/displaycode?section=edc&group=48001-49000&file=48900-48927]↩
4. [Cal. Pen. Code §646.9. http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/displaycode?section=pen&group=00001-01000&file=639-653.2]↩
5. [For an account of cases where cyberbullying contributed to the suicide of the victim, visit http://nobullying.com/six-unforgettable-cyber-bullying-cases/]↩