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Internet Trolling

Volume 550: debated on Monday 17 September 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Greg Hands.)

I am delighted to have the chance to initiate an Adjournment debate to highlight an issue that is becoming commonplace on social media sites.

Trolling is wide-ranging and stirs up strong feelings, among people who want it criminalised and want those who indulge in it to be jailed, and among those who believe it is their inherent right to indulge in—as they see it—a bit of banter, and who claim that freedom of speech is one of their human rights, whether or not it causes offence. It should be noted that the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country, and that right is commonly subject to limitations.

The topic transcends the usual petty party politics. It is not about attributing blame, or even urging a particular Department to take ownership of the issue. Indeed, I am aware that Members on both sides of the House have been victims of trolling, as have I—although of course we all know that parliamentarians are pachyderms, with little or no feeling, so it should not bother us. But it does bother the public. My hope is that all parties will work together to reach a solution and take trolling seriously, specifically RIP trolling.

As I shall set out at the end of my speech, the solution may or may not take the form of legislation, but if a change in the law is required, so be it. In that spirit, I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department for meeting me at the end of last year. Since then, I have met, among others, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), and representatives from Merseyside police, Facebook and the Crown Prosecution Service. Although some of those meetings were less productive than others, there was universal recognition that trolling exists, and that it is grossly offensive and it is escalating. With such a rise in prominence has come greater scrutiny of the laws that govern its practice and punishment. The starting point must be to see how we can improve the way trolling is prevented, policed and punished. That would be preferable to trying to get Parliament to act, as the wheels of justice turn slowly.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing an Adjournment debate on such an important issue. He mentioned that he had met the CPS and Merseyside police. From those conversations, I am sure he would agree that one of the problems for the police is that it is difficult to know which legislation to invoke when trying to prosecute offences, and that there are no definite frameworks or boundaries for them to work in. Furthermore, the CPS will consider only what happened over the previous six months, and will not go further back to look at abuse caused by trolling.

The hon. Lady is right. I hope to tease out some of the complexities of the legislation during my contribution, but it is not as easy as us just saying that trolls should be brought to book—I shall try to outline why.

Trolling has become a sick hobby for some and an increasing problem for dedicated police trying to monitor and respond to reported cases. Trolls are individuals intent on upsetting and offending people, often in their hour of grief and mourning, for a kind of pleasure that I must admit is totally alien to me and, I would think, to every person in this Chamber.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the matter to the House’s attention. Every Member will have examples of constituents who have been subjected to trolling, whether in the workplace, in schools or on the internet. Young people who write about the good things that have happened to them can find that they are attacked on the websites. The example of Tom Daley comes to mind, because of what happened to him at the Olympics, when a cheerful thing turned into nastiness. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there must be some system in place, whether banning trolls from using the websites, legislation or whatever, to protect young people and those using the internet in an innocent fashion?

I agree that the first thing to do is to try to identify those people causing the offence, which is very difficult because they hide behind the anonymity of a computer. The second part, of course, is to try to get the issue out among the general public, so that we can secure a culture change in society. One of the starting points is to highlight some of the celebrity trolling and the great offence it has caused, although it happens to ordinary people too.

It seems that local newspapers now cannot have an online discussion or commentary following an article on their websites because trolls will totally dominate and post page after page of abuse, which means other people just switch off. I do not know whether that is my hon. Friend’s experience, but it is certainly mine.

I have experienced and identified that when reading the comments beneath an article. It is not about people having extreme views; it is about the posting of really offensive, disgusting and vile comments that shock people. That sort of thing is prevalent in online discussions.

I want to bring to the House’s attention the case of Georgia Varley, who was just 16 years old when she slipped from a platform under the carriage of a departing train at James Street station in Liverpool. Her devastated family and friends set up a dedicated memorial page on Facebook to inform others of Georgia’s death and as a means of demonstrating their outpouring of love and affection for this popular schoolgirl. But in the days and weeks that followed, sick, vile and truly grotesque individuals whose identity was hidden through an online alias abused Georgia’s site. Most had never even visited Liverpool and certainly had no knowledge of Georgia, but they thought it would be fun to exploit her death.

I would never dream of repeating the vicious insults directed at Georgia and her family, because it would be wrong for them to appear in Hansard. Indeed, I believe that it would probably give the trolls a kick if they thought that outcome was the product of their vindictiveness. However, I have directed my staff to keep records of certain trolls, and I would be happy to place copies in the House of Commons Library if requested so that Members can ascertain for themselves the truly depraved nature of the content.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so generous in giving way. I think that he has recounted that story before in this place, and it is truly awful, but the situation is even worse. There are cases of people actually being driven to their deaths by trolls. Two cases come to mind, those of Natasha MacBryde and Olivia Penpraze, who both wrote on the internet and thought that social media was something they could engage with. They thought that the people they were engaging with were just reasonable human beings, but the fact is that there are some pretty horrific people out there. Those two girls were driven to their deaths by trolls telling them to kill themselves. That is the severity of the situation. It is not just people who have died whose sites are abused; people can be driven to their deaths.

Those are two of the most depressing and disgusting instances of trolling. It is not just about having a bit of fun; it can lead to serious consequences. I will return to the case of at least one of those people who, unfortunately, took their own life.

Part of the problem is that a degree of professionalism is associated with some trolls that might be too sophisticated for our laws to combat in their current guise. The relevant legislation on this matter predates the birth of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which were not launched until 2004 and 2006 respectively. In fact, since becoming actively involved in this issue, I have increasingly come to understand that the law surrounding trolling is a minefield. If only Thomas Jefferson had been right when he said:

“Laws are made for men of ordinary understanding and should, therefore, be construed by the ordinary rules of common sense. Their meaning is not to be sought for in metaphysical subtleties which may make anything mean everything or nothing at pleasure.”

A whole plethora of associated legislation could potentially be used against trolls, but there is nothing specific to outlaw the practice itself. The Suicide Act 1961 can still be used against those who encourage others to take their own lives, and it was specifically amended, with websites in mind and to simplify the law, by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. We also have the Telecommunications Act 1984; section 4a of the Public Order Act 1986; the Computer Misuse Act 1990, which created precedent by extending the time limit to investigate cases for summary offence; and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, under section 3(2) of which claimants may pursue a civil case for damages. Those are all relevant pieces of legislation, but none specifically identifies trolling as an offence, and every single one was passed before Facebook or Twitter existed. Even section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 predates social media, but it suggests that someone can be found to have broken the law if a message is sent that is

“grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.”

It goes on to say that the section

“targets false messages and persistent misuse intended to cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety”.

The Crown Prosecution Service clarified this on its website by stating:

“If a message sent is grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or false, it is irrelevant whether it was received. The offence is one of sending, so it is committed when the sending takes place.”

The CPS also confirms:

“A person guilty of an offence under the same section shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine or to both.”

The crime is dealt with under the fixed penalty scheme. However, there is a degree of subjectivity when we talk about causing offence. Trolls often write that they do not know what might cause offence to a particular individual and so cannot be accused of so doing.

We can already see the pitfalls. There is ambiguity over whether a six-month sentence is long enough in order to send a message to trolls that such behaviour is not to be tolerated and, by extension, to seek fundamentally to change behaviour. There are also questions about whether, given the complexities surrounding false identities, there is enough time for the police fully to investigate complaints and for the CPS to deem whether a successful prosecution is likely. The Guardian recently reported that nearly 8% of Facebook profiles were fake, which equates to approximately 83 million accounts worldwide. This has become not just a national but an international problem.

The other relevant piece of legislation is the Malicious Communications Act 1988, section 1 of which deals with the sending to another of

“any article which is indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat, or which is false, provided there is intent to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient”.

The offence covers letters, writing of all descriptions, electronic communications, photographs and other images in material form, tape recordings, films and video recordings.

I believe that the greatest strength of both that Act and the Communications Act 2003 is that for an offence to be deemed to have been committed, the intended recipient of the message never has to receive it. That is pivotal in prosecuting RIP trolls, because more often than not the intended recipient of their bile is deceased. It is therefore right and proper that it is the sending that is an offence, and that proof is not needed that a person has received the communication in question. There still has to be intent to cause offence or distress.

Does the hon. Gentleman therefore feel that there is a greater role for the police to play? If the legislation is in place and there is an opportunity to prosecute, should the police do more?

It is always difficult to say whether the police should do more, and part of the problem is the complexities of the gaps in legislation which I have just identified. That has to be the starting place for the House to consider seriously whether a Bill should be introduced to close the loopholes that people have been able to wriggle out of.

There have recently been two prosecutions for racially motivated tweets. One was sent to the former footballer Stan Collymore and the other was sent in the wake of the collapse on the pitch of Fabrice Muamba. Both were vile comments, but the sanctions imposed by judges were met with condemnation from certain sections of the public and disdain from others for being too lenient.

We must work harder to raise the issue of trolling so that people know unequivocally that they should not say something online that they would not say face to face. The case of Natasha MacBryde, which was mentioned earlier, is perhaps the most high-profile case of trolling, because an 18-week prison sentence was handed out to Sean Duffy, who admitted that he was hooked on the sick craze. That is far and away the severest sentence that a court has handed out to date.

Many months before the release of the Hillsborough independent panel report, I spoke to Facebook about a page that had been set up on its site called “96 Wasn’t Enough”. It informed me that the content of the page and/or postings on the site did not constitute a breach of its community standards, and that there was no need to remove the page because there was not an implied or explicit threat. I add that I do not condone trolling by anyone. Alan Davies received some horrendous abuse over his ill-judged comments about Hillsborough, and I was quick to condemn hate messages aimed towards him and his family. I think it is better to educate than to abuse.

Trolling is not about normal social discourse, or even about disagreeing vehemently with someone who has a contrary opinion. The test should be quite simple: would someone be happy to put their name to what they have said under a false identity? We are not talking about cases of whistleblowing, in which it would be understandable to anonymise a person’s details. If the answer to that question is that someone would not be happy to be identified, we have to ask why. Why would somebody need to hide their identity under such circumstances?

Having listened carefully to what Facebook had to say when I met it, I have developed a better understanding of what it determines to be acceptable. Although I may disagree with the grey areas within the boundaries that social media sites impose, I understand that they are as much about the sharing of information as they are about people getting a better understanding of local, national, regional and international cultures, events in history and universally famous tragedies. However, I have severe reservations about the ability of social media sites to understand fully the gross offence caused by certain types of message, especially to families and friends of deceased victims. Surely common sense must prevail. All too often, the benefit of the doubt falls in favour of the rights of the troll over those of their innocent target.

Trolling is not about disagreeing with another person’s perspective. It is not about telling somebody straight what they think about them, or that they think that the other person is wrong. Trolling is not even about arguing with somebody online about sensitive issues. It is about setting out, intentionally and deliberately, to cause gross offence to another, or to say something menacing.

I reiterate that I hope that tonight’s debate is just the beginning. I am keen to hear others’ views and to learn new things about trolling. Will the Minister therefore answer the following questions? Do the Government fully appreciate the escalating problem of trolling? What monitoring of activity are they undertaking? Are the Government satisfied with the prosecution rate of trolls, or does the Minister believe, like me, that the number of trolling cases far outweighs that of convictions? Has the Minister met the police and/or the CPS recently to discuss the obstacles to prosecuting trolls? What time frame have the Government scheduled to look at ways in which to address the problem? Could an amendment to legislation be made in this Parliament, if the Minister believes that to be appropriate? What discussions has he had with social media sites about the need to strengthen the community standards that govern best practice on them? Does he agree that they could and should do far more to aid the police with prosecuting trolls?

I believe that the law of the land needs to be constantly updated to reflect social and technological advancements. However, I also appreciate that, in the case of trolling, concerted effort by Parliament to change online culture may well prove to be just as important as an amendment to existing legislation.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) not only on giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject—and he made his speech with great force and evident sincerity—but on his ongoing campaigning on the subject. I am happy, as a Home Office Minister, to indicate a willingness to engage with him on how we can try to address many of the serious concerns that he raised.

We all benefit from the internet, and the Government are keen to promote the positives of that technology for both economic growth and social value. At the same time, we all have a responsibility to help prevent crime, and to take appropriate action to protect ourselves and others in cyberspace.

So-called trolling is an example of where the opportunities presented by the internet, particularly social media networks, can be abused in the ways that the hon. Gentleman highlighted. It has the potential to be far more serious than simple banter—I agree with him about that, and disagree with commentators who have described it merely in those terms. It can include highly offensive, obscene and menacing behaviour, solely intended to cause pain and distress—activity that we would all agree is deplorable and disgraceful. The hon. Gentleman raised a powerful example from his constituency: grossly offensive messages on memorial pages to a young constituent who died in a tragic accident last year. I am sure that we all join him in expressing how terrible it must have been for that young constituent’s family and friends to have their grief compounded by those abusive and appalling messages.

More recently, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, there has been a series of incidents involving high-profile public figures, which brought the activity—which impacts on people across the country going about their everyday lives—to wider public attention. If those examples serve any purpose, it is that they contribute to a wider public discourse about acceptable social norms and behaviour, particularly in the context of the appropriateness of behaviour online as well as offline.

Let me be clear, for the avoidance of doubt, that the Government are not seeking to criminalise bad manners, unkind comments, or idiotic views. Social media sites are not, and cannot, be an opportunity for entirely anonymous and consequence-free posting of comments that would be unacceptable in any other context. It is, therefore, important to emphasise the oft-repeated and clear principle that what is illegal offline is also illegal online. An individual should be charged and prosecuted for the offence they commit, irrespective of whether it happens in the street or in cyberspace.

Trolling can manifest itself in a number of ways, and hon. Members may find it helpful if I quickly rehearse the legislation that can be—and has been—used to prosecute such activity. The Malicious Communications Act 1988 covers the

“sending of an indecent, offensive or threatening letter, electronic communication or other article to another person.”

As has been mentioned, Sean Duffy was prosecuted last September under section 1 of that Act after posting offensive messages and videos on the tribute pages of young people who had died. He was jailed for 18 weeks.

Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 created an offence of sending, or causing to be sent,

“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 2010, Colm Coss was charged under section 127 of that Act for posting obscene messages on social network tribute sites. He, too, was successfully prosecuted and imprisoned for 18 weeks.

When trolling involves conduct that amounts to the harassment of another, offenders can be charged under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Conduct amounting to child abuse can be, and has been, prosecuted under the Protection of Children Act 1978. The Government are currently clarifying the law in the Defamation Bill to ensure that where trolling is defamatory, website operators are clear about their responsibilities to victims.

The Government are reforming measures to tackle antisocial behaviour, regardless of whether it occurs offline or online. To continue to support professionals to help and protect victims, we are introducing simpler and more effective powers that, where appropriate, agencies can use flexibly to deal with antisocial individuals who cause misery and distress to others. Robust legislation already exists, and the Crown Prosecution Service will determine what legislation to use in a prosecution, depending on the circumstances of each case.

The Government recognise that laws to deal with internet trolling are not sufficient on their own. Police and prosecutors need the capacity and knowledge to work within a complex legal framework, to meet the jurisdictional challenges of the online world, and to understand and balance legitimate concerns about civil liberties.

The Government take the threat to the UK from cyberspace extremely seriously, and are spending considerable amounts of money on cyber-security and cybercrime in its more narrow form. We have taken a number of significant actions to increase the capacity and capability of the UK law enforcement response to cybercrime. In particular, we are developing training on cybercrime for all police officers, which will help them to investigate crimes committed online, and we will create a national cybercrime unit within the National Crime Agency by 2013.

However, we should not see this problem entirely in legal terms; it is also about ensuring that cultural norms on appropriate and acceptable behaviour evolve at the same pace as technology. That goes wider than the role of the Home Office or the Government, to all of society. We recognise that prevention is a key part of tackling trolling as well as other forms of abuse and misuse of social networking sites. We are accordingly pressing the internet industry in the UK and Europe to implement clear and simple processes for dealing with abuse online. In our experience, for the most part, social network site operators adopt sensible and responsible positions on any abuse or misuse of their services in the terms and conditions they require for their use, but I take the point made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton that that may require further work.

I pay tribute again to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter and to others who contributed to the debate. I believe that we have sufficient laws in place to deal with the problem, but we need to be vigilant about it and aware of the huge offence it can cause. When the line between merely unpleasant behaviour and illegal behaviour is crossed, the Government are happy to work with Members of all parties to ensure that the appropriate action is taken.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.