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Can the UK Government Prevent Abusive or Threatening Comments Online

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013 (9:58 am) - Score 3,691

Only weeks after the government put in place a stricter policy to nudge big broadband ISPs into censoring access to “adult” internet content (here) and it’s now positioning for a fight against the online worlds next biggest perceived evil.. swearing and trolls. Easier said than done.

Few could have overlooked the sad and shocking news that a young 14-year-old girl, Hannah Smith, recently took her own life after a vile campaign of internet bullying was directed against her on the Ask.fm website. Shortly after that it was revealed that her 16-year-old sister had also suffered torrents of abuse on Facebook.

Quite understandably her parents then called upon the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to “make sure these sites are properly regulated so bullying of vulnerable people like my daughter cannot take place“. Last week the government duly responded by launching a new Inquiry into Online Safety that curiously lumped clearly legal, albeit sometimes undesirable, content in with hardened criminal and illegal material.

Remit for the Inquiry into Online Safety

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee has decided to investigate a number of aspects of online safety that are currently raising concerns, in particular:

* How best to protect minors from accessing adult content;
* Filtering out extremist material, including images of child abuse and material intended to promote terrorism or other acts of violence;
* Preventing abusive or threatening comments on social media.

Casual observers will immediately note that the government has already spent the best part of the last two years working on new measures to tackle nearly all of the areas that the inquiry is set to cover (except of course the third point) and has only recently unveiled stricter measures for ISPs and online content providers, which haven’t even been fully introduced yet.

The inquiry is thus perhaps more of a political exercise to fend off any criticism of perceived inaction but this doesn’t mean to say that it won’t result in new legislation. The threat of mission creep, through an abuse of censorship, which many have been warning about, has suddenly started to become very real.

What is Threatening and Abusive Content?

Admittedly it would be nice if the Internet as a whole was a cleaner place where everybody behaved more within the social norms and conventions of real-life, except arguably on Friday and Saturday nights where many people sadly turn a blind eye to the drunken violence and abuse on some of our streets.

In fact people, both old and young alike, can be tremendously obnoxious and rude when they choose to be. Sadly the internet often makes this worse by affording an almost unavoidable cloak of anonymity that sometimes encourages the darker side in all of us – both in the online and offline world alike.

The situation is particularly relevant to trolls, which is generally used to describe truly abusive people who lack restraint and instead revel in creating discord by starting arguments, upsetting other people or generally posting extreme / inflammatory remarks. Experienced net users learn to simply ignore and block such individuals but others will inevitably be sucked into an ultimately emotional and fruitless land of drivel. Sometimes such things happen accidentally but a true troll simply has nothing better to do than behave this way all the time.

Thankfully most people have long since learnt some control, usually through a mix of good parenting or schooling, and have thus developed a respect for the fine art of polite restraint and constructive communication. But occasionally even this can be broken and, at some point or another, we’ve all said silly, outlandish or possibly even illegal things to another person; words that we usually, but not always, regret.

The difference with the online world is that such words can be recorded, shared and often end up being published within the public domain. Say the wrong thing today and you could get arrested, even when what you say is just meant as a joke (e.g. when Paul Chambers threatened to blow Robin Hood airport up on Twitter). Real life has rules and so does the Internet but sometimes people forget that and as a result common sense, both within the law and human nature, can be briefly lost.

On the other hand bad language is still language; it is a tool of communication and doesn’t always have to be spoken in jest. Comedians swear as part of jokes and friends jostle and mock each other. But, for a third-party observer, the context isn’t always clear and mistakes can be made. One man’s troll is another’s journalist. The government does at least recognise this.

Statement from the Inquiry into Online Safety

These dangers are the correlation of the immense benefits provided by unimpeded communication and free speech, so any attempts to mitigate harms have to be proportionate and, where possible, avoid disadvantageous consequences“.

At the end of the day, like it or not, the vast majority of people swear and sometimes say the wrong things; especially children and ironically they’re usually the worst because they’ve often yet to learn how to communicate properly.

Others, such as trolls, take this to an extreme. But from the perspective of an outside observer it’s not always easy to tell the difference, without taking due time to consider the context. Everything can look bad even when it’s not intended to be that way.

Can it be stopped?

It is the nature and economics of the online world that a website or social media service can be home to a community of millions and yet it may only be governed by a handful of individuals, which is clearly never going to be enough to conduct proper moderation of every single piece of visitor posted content. But this is how millions of websites around the world work.

Admittedly filters can be added to remove swearing, much as we use on our forum and review system, but even those are little use against multiple variations of masked vulgarity (e.g. replacing a letter in a swear word with a number or special character that looks the same) and people can still bully or cause offense without even swearing once (e.g. calling somebody ugly or fat).

On top of that there’s the fact that nobody, not government’s, not computers.. NOBODY, can accurately censor content before it’s been written. Mercifully time travel and mind reading are still tools that we haven’t quite managed to develop yet. Except for Uri Geller of course, perhaps the government could employ him to solve this?

As a result the government could never produce any legislation that would truly be able to “prevent” abusive or threatening content on the Internet. If they did then it would simply end up being unworkable, much like the ill-conceived cookie law that merely resulted in a whole mass of UK and EU websites being forced to display ugly privacy pop-ups that annoy visitors and ignore how most sites need cookies to help manage basic processes (login sessions, analytics, sales etc.).

None of this is to say that the security forces and perhaps the law shouldn’t be tightened to better target the ugliest of online behaviour, or that websites shouldn’t work to tackle such content when made aware of it. However a better focus on helping parents and school to educate their children about online behaviour might not be a bad start.

But at the same time there’s human nature involved, the threat to free speech that must always be considered and the fact that websites by nature can be huge but will often only be managed by a small team on a tiny or sometimes even non-existent budget. It’s easy to forget that most websites are FREE and thus we should not be expecting the same level of prompt response as a service that you actually pay to receive.

In the meantime it’s worth remembering that, in the online world, if somebody says something you don’t like then you can often either block / ignore them (if the feature exists) or simply scroll past the content. Nine times out of ten you only fuel a troll by validating it with a response.

The inquiry will be open for submissions between 27th August 2013 and Monday 30th September 2013.

Leave a Comment
9 Responses
  1. Avatar dragoneast

    The on-line world is no worse (or better) than the off-line world in which I grew up. What has changed is that we have no sense of personal responsibility or self-control, for anything. Destroyed by the evil partnership of commercial interests and government in order to sell you any old trash.

    And what you won’t do for yourself, there is always some fool who will do it for you.

  2. Avatar cyclope

    Kids and the internet, they spend far too much time sat looking at a computer screen this can’t be good for their physical health little wonder why there is so much child obseasity here and in the states
    Social media isn’t a must, and if kids are “getting bullied” they always can switch the dam computer off,
    This girl must of been unstable to have killed her self , To blame technology is wrong, And so is restricting the internet for everyone else “because we should think of the children” everytime something like this happens

  3. Avatar DanielM

    Nanny state once again, if they dont like abuse then why signup to such a site? the parents are just as stupid as the kid. why should everyone else suffer for their lack of good parenting?

  4. Avatar Bob2002

    >This girl must of been unstable to have killed her self

    Ask.fm audited the IP addresses of the messages sent to Hannah Smith, 98% of them had the same IP address as her own connection – only 4 had different IP addresses. But let the tabloids and mainstream media outlets conveniently sweep that under the carpet so they can all go on a nonsensical witch hunt.

    • Avatar dragoneast

      Sadly, some kids have always self-harmed, even a few going so far as to commit suicide, for as long as I can remember. Growing up can be painful. If there was a magic wand to stop it we’d have found it by now. Love works, sometimes; but it can’t be doled out by the government.

  5. Avatar ant

    Those that go running to site op’s or similar that some unknown person on the internet called them a name or said something they did not like have a far bigger issues than any statement made in the first place. I guess again that reverts back to years in their past and bad parenting who never taught them you can not always get your own way. Leaving them psychological disturbed in later years and unable to function beyond their own four walls.

  6. Avatar timeless

    this is just pure and simple propaganda to get their fingers into more and more information which they will use as an excuse for censorship.

    they talk like its an online problem but its just as prolific offline, while recent events may be sad the government are missing the point purely because they want to have more access to our internet communications as they care little for what is happening on playgrounds.

  7. Avatar hmm

    the goverment should stick goverment work economy and jobs keep their nose out off the internet if people can,t handle the internet tough there is a off button on the computer people are wimps these days sorry but its true

    • Avatar ahhhhh

      yip exactly they always interfere when they shouldnt thats how good the poxie uk government are if you would call it a government run by the mickey mouse pratts all for themselves them fcukwits .

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