This post is also available in: עברית (Hebrew)
A recent story in the Guardian (16.10.2014) reported that Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is promoting legislation according to which anyone indicted of internet ‘trolling’ will be subject to four times longer prison sentences. From six months to two years. “Internet trolls spread ‘venom’ on social media, ” said the minister.
Who are these Internet trolls? what is the threat they pose, and perhaps the only threat is to their personal liberty? The i-HLS.com technology desk is setting the record straight.
We all probably know the garden variety Internet troll, even if we do not know him or her to be one. At the end of each story on the news, however painful or troubling, there will always be those whose reactions are sarcastic, cruel, offensive and hurtful.
They are known as ‘talkback writers’. They practically have nearly unlimited scope to vent, release their malice, offend, curse, and hurt people while hiding behind total anonymity.
Where is the fine line between voicing one’s opinion, however unpopular or unconventional, and those who could be indicted and imprisoned for long sentences – allegedly for only having shared their opinion?
There is of course no straight answer to this complex question, predominantly since in this day and age of rapid mass information, any attempts to draw a parallel between virtual life within the blogosphere and real life are hardly simple.
One of the customary tools Internet trolls employ is to masquerade as registered users in forums, and sometimes as public figures by lightly distorting or slightly changing their name or real nickname. Internet trolls tend to write much like the characters they impersonate, and they spread venom, lies, inflammatory remarks and threats by introducing slight variations into pre-written text.
It would seem that impersonating someone else in the cyber world would be the same as in the real world. Nevertheless, opinions are divided. But the greater problem of persecuting an Internet troll is tracing him or her, identifying them, and most difficult of all: tying them to the deed in order to bring them to trial and indicting them successfully.
There is no one way to fight this phenomenon. Sometimes, harsh sentencing, like the one being proposed in Britain, or even extreme sentencing, like in Arizona (up to 25 years in prison) only serve to motivate certain people who have the mental composition and personality which are prone to further provoke the law and law enforcement agencies.
The course most data security companies and experts advise is to ignore Internet trolls altogether. This is probably the most effective method to “take the sting out” of their activity, as they are primarily after inflaming discussions.
Another reason to do more think about the extent of Internet trolls’ sentences, is the degrees lawmakers should have when they are faced with determining a punishment which fits the crime. Given that data and cyber related offences pose an enormous potential for harm, whose scope is something we may not be aware of yet, we should be mindful of some proportion between the act itself – impersonation or unsavory conduct on the one hand and cyber crimes which could bring a nation’s economy crashing down – and the sentence it carries.