Internet Troll Jailed In The UK For Being A Jerk Online

from the 4chan-/b/-just-got-worried dept

We’ve written a few times in the past about various attempts to outlaw “being a jerk” online. These efforts are often well meaning, but pretty dangerous from the standpoint of any sort of belief in free speech. Being a jerk is silly and obnoxious, but it shouldn’t be illegal. However, as a whole bunch of you have sent in, over in the UK, they feel differently. An internet troll who mocked a variety of dead people to their grieving friends and families has been sentenced to jail for “sending malicious communications.” He got 18 weeks as the judge said, “You have caused untold distress to already grieving friends and family.”

This is troubling on any number of levels. Most specifically, it’s exceptionally worrisome when you base punishment on how someone responds to speech made by someone else. Yes, the comments were obnoxious and totally classless and uncalled for. But, whether or not they cause “distress” should not be the basis for judging whether or not they’re legal. There are lots of things that someone can say that would cause distress, but that shouldn’t make it illegal to say them. This certainly opens up a can of worms over just what kind of speech is so distressing that it gets you jail time. Either way, if you’re from the UK, be careful what you post in our comments going forward. It apparently could get you jail time.

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Comments on “Internet Troll Jailed In The UK For Being A Jerk Online”

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cannonfodder (profile) says:

Police State.

Wait a minuet, so if this man has been sent to prison for this offence, why hasn’t anyone from the police been sent down for lying about, deformation, & character assassination spewed all over the media about Ian Tomlinson, Jean Charles de Menezes, & most recently Mark Duggan.

an apology is all that is required from the police to justify their lies & the distress it has caused?


why hasn’t the UK gov especially tony blain, jeff hoon, jack straw, david miliband been sent down for lying about Iraq or rendition & torture.

Duke (profile) says:

s127 Communications Act 2003

For those interested, it sounds like this was another (ab)use of s127 Communications Act 2003, which criminalises sending a message that is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” or “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another.”

This is the same law (that apparently dates from the days when telephones were very rare, and was used to protected operators) that is being used in the ongoing Twitter Joke Trial.

It’s a rather stupid and out-dated law.

Duke (profile) says:

Re: Re: s127 Communications Act 2003

In response to A), s127 CA was copied/transferred from s43 Telecommunications Act 1984, which in turn was based on one of the 1900s Telegraph Acts (but I haven’t been able to find it yet) – I don’t imagine it was ever debated; just carried over from older legislation without question.

As for C), you not being in England (or England and Wales, the UK, the EU etc.) may not prevent extradition – although that only seems to work with people going to the US. Also, you assume there is a roof across from me and that I have a window.

Another AC says:

A little over the top here

“Duffy, who is unemployed and did not know any of his victims, pleaded guilty to two counts of sending malicious communications relating to Natasha.”

He plead guilty to the charges oddly. I wonder what would have happened had he not done that and actually tried to defend himself.

That said, the reporting is a little too over the top for me. His “Victims”? “Duffy’s series of online attacks”? Come on, could we possibly make this more over-blown than that?

Lord Binky says:

It was intended to harm them...

And I know intent is poor choice base laws on. Still I don’t know what kind of social norms would keep this in check if you want free speech that is clearly harassment of a stranger. Hiding behind the anonimity makes it a little harder to stop abuse of a person like that. Make it so he is not punished but his identity will be known and let social norms take over from there? Outside of jail time/fines he likely enjoys the attention, so what would the community do to discourage such behaviour? Have banks refuse to continue business with him? Stores and restuarants refuse service?

Oh, and he did not know anyone he was doing this to, he simply was going out of his way, communicating directly to and trying to cause pain to the people trying grieve for the loss of someone they cared about and draw out emotional reactions.

Niall (profile) says:

Re: It was intended to harm them...

If he’s a loner, then ‘social norms’ are a bit meaningless if he’s outside their scope.

Since we don’t have a level of freedom of speech in the UK as formalised as in the US, it’s a grey area where this comes, but certainly actively and apparently maliciously (and remember, he pled guilty here) causing emotional harm is something that people feel strongly about. According to papers here, he did quite bit of this, and it was only on a couple of counts (i.e. enough for them to smack him down on) that he pled guilty – others may have taken more proof.

Personally, I have mixed feelings on this, regarding free speech versus justice.

Butcherer79 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: westboro baptist

actually, they wouldn’t have to lie, there’s all sorts of get out’s in the UK law around provocation – Depending on the level of damage done, and that’s a grey area too, “reasonable force” and other such measuring scales with no actual scalable measurements, so then it’s down to the police to decide what was reasonable and after that, the judge then the appeal judge(s).

This may be restricting free speech, but when free speech restricts other’s freedom (to grieve for instance, or to try to rebuild their emotional state to something getting near normal) then there has to be some way to stop it, doesn’t there?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 westboro baptist

but when free speech restricts other’s freedom (to grieve for instance

The girls brother decided to grieve in public by creating a Facebook tribute page. He could have grieved privately but he choose not to. Duffy didn’t restrict their freedom in any way, shape, or form … he offended them. Once you start locking up people for offending other people, good luck, you’re gonna’ need it.

Nicholas Alexander (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 westboro baptist

Expressions of grief in public do not deserve hate speech.

Whether the idiot deserved jail for posting on FB or not was up to the judge (or the appeal court) applying British laws.

There seems to be an idea that because it’s on FB it is invited? That idea makes no sense. It is direct evidence of blatant anti-social behaviour.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 westboro baptist

So which is it? Because you seem to be on both sides of the fence? You’re argument is, essentially, he didn’t deserve to go to jail but the British court system put him there so … why even bother talking?

Expressions of grief in public do not deserve hate speech.

No one said the deserved hate speech, it just happened that someone used offensive speech. (Hate speech is usually a phrase reserved for speech which demeans a class of people not an individual.)

There seems to be an idea that because it’s on FB it is invited?

If they were not inviting commentary, then why put a page up on Facebook with comments enabled and no privacy settings? I’m sure that they didn’t anticipate this type of thing happening but they made a choice to turn their grieving into a public spectacle and they have to deal with the consequences of that choice.

Nicholas Alexander (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 westboro baptist

Yes, I am on the fence on this. The arguments here have affected the way I have thought about this. I comment because it is interesting. Hope that is cool with you.

The defendant is an Aspergers case and prison is probably going to be pure hell. The public sentiment in the UK at the moment is moving into a logic of lock them up and when that starts to apply to protesters, then of course it is wrong.

The defendant also expressed remorse. He apologised and the judge felt it necessary to make an example of him. The judge’s decision can be overturned but it is a legal sentence.

But I am saying that just because it is in a “public forum” like FB, it does not change the basic laws of harassment or libel, in fact it creates evidence that is hard to refute. British residents may have to think twice before doing stuff like this. The judge probably wanted people to think twice about what they do online, or off line.

Not everyone who has lost a loved one is going to set their privacy settings exactly correct. If you lose a child you are going to make mistakes and FB have changed their privacy default settings quite a bit.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:8 westboro baptist

He apologised and the judge felt it necessary to make an example of him.

In the US I think it’s considered a violation of the 8th Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) to give someone a stiffer sentence in order to make an example, rather than sentencing purely based on the crime, the perpetrator, and the circumstances. Don’t know about UK law though.

The judge probably wanted people to think twice about what they do online, or off line.

That’s called a chilling effect, and again in the US (I know, I know, but it’s the law that I’m familiar with) protection of free speech means creating chilling effects must be justified in some way. Clearly the UK doesn’t value free speech nearly as much as the US does.

Nicholas Alexander (profile) says:

Freedom of speech

The only country I know of that has freedom of speech enshrined in law is the USA.

The UK certainly does not. London has 2 million video cameras to catch rioters and thieves. The UK has a conservative government that leans on the judiciary to put petty thieves into jail for stealing bottles of water.

You can generally get away for saying most things, and the press can be heartless and very cruel. But when News of the World was caught listening in on private phone conversations and started publishing who was sleeping around with whom there was only a huge public reaction when it was revealed that a murdered school girl’s phone was hacked.

And this case is similar. The government also recently stopped a racist organisation from doing a protest march. The Prime Minister now avoids talking to his erstwhile darlings, the Murdochs….

Duke (profile) says:

Re: Freedom of speech

The UK has a limited form of “freedom of speech” enshrined in its Bill of Rights 1689, and there are some cases around the 1660s and 70s discussing it. A quick search also suggests that it is covered by Article 11 of France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen from 1789. Of course, since the 1950s, the UK has had the slightly different “freedom of expression” (which is now enshrined in 47 countries across Europe); it’s like freedom of speech but is broader (in the sense of covering things other than words), but can be restricted as to *how* an idea is expressed.

“London has 2 million video cameras to catch rioters and thieves.” While I can’t disprove this, I have serious doubts that this is true; for example, it seems the London Underground only has around 6,000 cameras, and they’re not just for thieves and rioters, obviously.

That said, I do agree with the rest of what you’ve said; the current UK government has shown contempt for basic principles of law by leaning on the lower courts, openly undermining the High Court and following their predecessor’s habit of publicly criticising the higher courts whenever they give an “inconvenient” ruling. Parliament (in general – there are some good MPs) has shown itself incapable of taking any real action (not to mention containing fraudsters and criminals) to challenge the government, or do anything that isn’t in its own interests and many of the newspapers have happily ignored the law whenever they feel like it. It’s all rather depressing.times.

Nicholas Alexander (profile) says:

Re: Re: Freedom of speech

You are probably more correct than my exaggeration, I agree that I was being inaccurate and probably repeating urban myth – to some degree – but I did find this on Wikipedia:

“The exact number of CCTV cameras in the UK is not known for certain because there is no requirement to register CCTV cameras. However, research published in CCTV Image magazine estimates that the number of cameras in the UK is 1.85 million.”

Although I was being a bit dramatic by implying that the police have that many eyes (the majority of CCTV cameras are probably not monitored by police but are private ones that the police can access), but there are so many cameras on citizens the level of monitoring of citizens rather supports the contention that free speech / the right to protest or demonstrate is actively suppressed by the Government.

The student fee protests last winter and police tactics of punishing young people by essentially holding them for hours in cramped conditions was seen as a violation of rights by many, but after the recent riots/lootings the Government quietly introduced rubber bullets and water canons to quell dissent. Interestingly some of the idiots who ransacked shops believed they were justified due to “taxes”.

Living in London – you do not really feel that repressed and I am not afraid to make statements about human rights in newspaper comments under my own name. But it is true that this Government has an agenda with civil liberties a very low priority.

Then again, knife crime and muggings are rife — I am not saying these cameras are not helpful in putting criminals away, or that they may be useful in combating terrorism.

Thank you for reminding me of France’s Rights of Man and the Citizen. Freedom of speech is a more unusual condition than American citizens realise. I think American kids presume that the rest of the world think like they do, or share their norms.

And frankly, I do agree that this individual received a sentence he deserved for the emotional violence of his incredibly sick acts. But it does create a precedent – jail for trolling is certainly a new thing. Not sure it is a good precedent if it is used to punish people for posting stuff on this message board, for example.

Freedom of speech is one thing. Highly abusive intimidation is something else.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Freedom of speech

Highly abusive intimidation is something else.

Did you read the article by any chance? When they said he made a video called Tasha the Tank Engine I laughed out loud. It may not be appropriate but it was still funny … to me.

And that is kind of the point isn’t it (one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and all that). As far as I’m concerned, the families shouldn’t have any expectation of avoiding offensive comments when they choose to make their grieving public and create Facebook pages or other public websites. Actually, I’m offended by the idea of a tribute page for a dead relative, but I’m even more offended by the people that take photographs of their miscarriages and create tribute pages to their unborn children. When can we start locking up the people that offend me?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I’ll repeat (from above), I laughed out loud when I saw that he had created a video called ‘Tasha the Tank Engine’. It may not be appropriate, but it was funny … to me.

If you don’t want negative comments about your dead relatives stop making Facebook tribute pages and looking for sympathy from people who don’t give a crap about you or your family.

He should have got 18 years not 18 months.

If you really believe that then you need to spend the rest of your life in a padded room.

Butcherer79 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

So, because they didn’t have a full list of facebook accounts that would want to post respectfully (maybe some family members didn’t have a facebook account and only wanted to share in others memories?), they have, indirectly, invited abuse from an alcoholic loner (quoted from the telegraph article linked somewhere above) who knew what he was doing would cause offence and has led a wrongfully accused cyberbully (in a seperate case, again quoted from the telegraph) taking an overdose?
I again point towards what is free speech and what is defamation (see my libel/slander post on this thread)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I’ve been trying to avoid saying it this way but here it goes.

Some stuff doesn’t belong on the internet.

For me, grieving is one of the first things that comes to mind. So much online communication is superficial and done out of habit that I actually find the idea of a “grieving page” kind of disgusting. People constantly post messages without giving them any thought (see the Facebook birthday discussion on Techdirt) and a part of online communication is almost competitive (I can be more sad than so-and-so.)

That aside, this is clearly not defamation.

Defamation: a false accusation of an offense or a malicious misrepresentation of someone’s words or actions.

He was rude (and actually kind of funny with the Tasha the Tank Engine thing) but he didn’t do anything that would violate US style free speech laws. That said, there was a reason we rebelled against the UK, tyranny.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I don’t think they were looking for sympathy from people who didn’t know the girl, quite the opposite I suspect, they just created a page where memories, thoughts and sympathy can be easily written down and shared by all involved.
Is it wrong to expect as much?

Wrong as in incorrect, or wrong as in immoral? Clearly as it turns out they were incorrect in their expectations.

heyidiot (profile) says:

You are saying that you would like to live in a world where someone should get 18 years in jail for the “crime” of making a few people feel very very bad?

Why stop there? Why not make alcoholism a capital offense?

On the other hand, maybe you should attack the real problem, which appears to me to be the manufacturers of the strange devices these victims used to access the Internet, …which apparently force their users to visit the most personally offensive Facebook pages possible, and simultaneously disable their OFF switches.

candide08 (profile) says:

There is a difference between saying

something and posting it on the internet.

If you say something rude to someone it is over quickly and has a limited audience.

Internet postings are (more or less) forever and can be seen by millions of people.

I’m not saying that either should be illegal, just that there are differences and there are limits to “free” speech.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: There is a difference between saying

Yep, which is why we have viewings, visitations, wakes, funerals, graveyards, and a host of other events to remember the dead.

But if you want to put your grieving online, in a public forum (remember Facebook has privacy settings) then you get all the positive and negatives that come along with that.

What if the accused had written something like, “[Dead teenager name here] drugged and raped me”? What if it was even true? I’m sure the family would be equally offended by such comments (assuming they didn’t know about it). Should that person go to jail? What if they can’t prove it was true?

The point is stupid rulings in countries of law tend to have terrible consequences.

Butcherer79 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 There is a difference between saying

“What if the accused had written something like, “[Dead teenager name here] drugged and raped me”? What if it was even true? I’m sure the family would be equally offended by such comments (assuming they didn’t know about it). Should that person go to jail? What if they can’t prove it was true?”

The accused didn’t and what he did write wasn’t true, by his own admission, IF that had been the case, then presumably he would be able to prove the worthiness of his claim, however, he didn’t know the girl so the argument is invalid – this was about a stranger getting kicks out of maliscious posts, not posting the truth…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 There is a difference between saying

what he did write wasn’t true

What did he write about the girl that wasn’t true? As far as I know he made some kind of “forgot to stop lolz” comment and made the Tasha the Tank Engine video. Did he accuse her of specific actions?

this was about a stranger getting kicks out of maliscious posts

Yup, he wrote something dumb, had a laugh (or maybe passed out drunk) and now he is in jail. What’s up next? Thought crime? You’re aware he didn’t actually kill the girl right? That is the kind of thing people usually get put in prison for, not for saying things some people (not all people just some) don’t like. (Well, at least in 1st world countries).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: There is a difference between saying

That is nothing like saying “Oh, they had the funeral in a public place …” You see, in the real world, random people don’t drive all over the country reading local papers so that they can show up at funerals and yell at the mourners … because they would probably get punched in the face.

This is the internet where it is par for the course that people write foolish, insensitive, and ignorant comments anonymously. Stop using shitty analogies.

I’ll repeat, again, Facebook has privacy settings, use them.

Now onto yelling at people at funerals. I don’t love the recent SCOTUS ruling about Westboro Bat-shit crazy church, but I do respect it. Speech is best countered by more speech, or by ignoring the speech you don’t care for. All types of people are offended by all types of things, are we going to put everyone on the planet in jail? Would other countries allow extradition so that you could be jailed for saying something that offends Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, etc? Where does it stop? Does it matter how upset the other person is?

Butcherer79 (profile) says:

Re: One more notch for control..

I don’t know, there’s the right to free speech, but there’s also slander/libel laws, I don’t think the girl in question “fell asleep on the railway line” so at what point does free speech turn into slander/libel? (in the UK internet ?libel? has been judged to be more akin to slander, hence the use of ?slander/libel? –
Seperately, if you go by the charge, if this wasn’t meant as an attack then what was the point, getting laughs by someone else’s misfortune has often been the staple diet of stand up comedians, getting laughs out of someone?s untimely death, I would suggest, probably wouldn’t go down so well.

Butcherer79 (profile) says:

Re: this is why we declared independence

it was an empire, and it was the British Empire, not the United Kingdom Empire – It was possibly evil, but only in line with what is considered evil today, at the time what it did was the norm – just have a read on the French Empire, or the Ottoman Empire of rcomparison, the only difference is that the British Empire was the biggest (once)

Butcherer79 (profile) says:


As a side note, if this was said about the royal family in the UK the law still states that this would be a capital crime, the only one remaining in the UK – Treason.
Which to quote the original law, circa 1351AD ( :

The original law said: “When a Man doth compass or imagine the Death of our Lord the King, or of our Lady his Queen or of their eldest Son and Heir; or if a Man do violate the King’s Companion, or the King’s eldest Daughter unmarried, or the Wife the King’s eldest Son and Heir; or if a Man do levy War against our Lord the King in his Realm, or be adherent to the King’s Enemies in his Realm, giving to them Aid and Comfort in the Realm.”

Or rather what the law actually said was in Norman French, but put succinctly in English, you can’t kill, conspire against or wage war against the king and his family. You also can’t have sex with his wife, heir’s wife or his unmarried eldest daughter. And the act goes on to rule out actions against the chancellor, treasurer and various categories of senior judge

“[To] be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution and there be hanged by the neck, but not until they are dead, but that they should be taken down again, and that when they are yet alive their bowels should be taken out and burnt before their faces, and that afterwards their heads should be severed from their bodies, and their bodies be divided into four quarters, and their heads and quarters to be at the King’s disposal.”

Decani says:

I cannot understand this conversation

Okay, so I’m just going to put this out there; I went to the same school as Tash, I was in the same form as her brother, I was there when we were told the news by a teacher on the verge of tears, I saw the pain and hysteria that exploded in the ranks of the Year 10 girls. I am clearly biased.

However, having said that I hope I would respond similarly if a stranger was the topic of this conversation.

Tash was bullied on the internet, relentlessly. We will never know precisely what drove her to do what she did, but malicious comments on the internet played a part in her death. We can only imagine that she saw no other way out, so on the eve of Valentine’s Day 2011 she escaped the torture in a terribly tragic way. She was fifteen. All James (her brother) and their parents asked was for people to let her rest in peace; but no, the bullying continued. How anyone can say that’s acceptable is beyond me. Duffy was not just a “major jerk,” (offensive in itself) he was a predatory, sadistic man who knew exactly what he was doing. He set out to rip into the memory of a girl who was smart and well-loved and who definitely did not deserve that sort of treatment, pre- or post-humously. To suggest that what he did was okay is just disgusting.

Duffy thought he could do whatever he liked because he was sat behind a computer screen. His behaviour would not have been acceptable in the real world, so why is it acceptable in cyberspace? Free speech does not extend to the harrassment or infliction of pain on others. About a month ago a woman received a short prison sentence because she had launched into a racist attack in the middle of a crowded tram. I am proud to say that I’m from a country that considers that sort of behaviour completely unacceptable and this extends to people’s activity on the internet. Frankly I find that being lectured on morals and freedoms by citizens of a country that still imposes the death penalty is laughable.

The fall-out of Duffy’s actions was astronomical. I don’t think you appreciate the sort of effect his comments had. Our school community is incredibly tight-knit, something we pride ourselves on. To lose a member of that community in such a horrible fashion had massive repercussions and the hole she left in her year is still keenly felt. The raw grief alone was awful enough, but to dump a whole fresh hell on top of that, to have Tash’s friends and classmates subjected to ‘Tasha the Tank Engine’?! In school we were told to ignore the trolls, to not let them encroach on our memories of Tash. But you can’t unsee something like that. Duffy caused unimaginable suffering to so many people who were only trying to support each other in a grieving process that shouldn’t have had to’ve been endured.

I would also like to set one of your ‘facts’ straight. The MacBryde family did not set the Facebook tribute page up, Tash’s friends did. Tash’s fifteen year old friends. Granted, James gave it his blessing, understanding that they simply needed somewhere to talk and support each other in a public forum; it was also for the benefit of the wider school and local communities. The tribute page was taken down shortly after the trolling and a new one now exists with tightened privacy settings to prevent something this awful happening again.

When something like what happened to Tash happens in such a public and media-frenzied way, especially since she was so young, the grief is public too. Young girls aren’t emotionally repressed like everyone on this board seems to be. They are vital and caring and extraordinarily vulnerable. They shouldn’t have had to deal with the death of their friend, but they absolutely shouldn’t have been subjected to such a violent attack.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: I cannot understand this conversation

Thanks for posting.

Free speech does not extend to the harrassment or infliction of pain on others.

Even if the US, if this rose to the level of harrassment (I don’t know what exactly the requirements would be, and it probably varies from state to state), it could be actionable.

About a month ago a woman received a short prison sentence because she had launched into a racist attack in the middle of a crowded tram. I am proud to say that I’m from a country that considers that sort of behaviour completely unacceptable and this extends to people’s activity on the internet.

It’s a difference of philosophy. In some contexts in the US, we value the liberty to do as we please more highly than making sure nobody gets hurt. I say in some contexts, because in terms of physical danger, we seem to be over the top in making sure nobody can get hurt, but that’s probably because of the sue-happy nature of the country.

Frankly I find that being lectured on morals and freedoms by citizens of a country that still imposes the death penalty is laughable.

I don’t support the death penalty either. Probably for different reasons than you, but that’s off topic.

Young girls aren’t emotionally repressed like everyone on this board seems to be.

I’m not sure where you’re getting that. We weren’t involved, so I don’t think you should expect an upwelling of emotion about it here.

To suggest that what he did was okay is just disgusting.

Who, exactly, is suggesting that what he did was okay?

Sorry for your loss, and thanks again for posting your thoughts.

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