from the the-law-wasn't-BAD,-we-just-weren't-doing-it-HARD-enough! dept
The UK's Malicious Communications Act has served the country well in its aim to turn being a jerk into a criminal act. The Act debuted in 1988, in time to catch the internet in its developing period and criminalize behavior that was already covered by existing laws. (Except for the whole "on the internet" thing that makes lawmakers bust out their favorite markup pens.)
As it stands now, trolling (for lack of a better, shorter word) is punishable by up to 6 months in prison. For many of those on the receiving end of internet-delivered abuse, this apparently seems like it's too short to be effective. The Register notes that many of the act's proponents felt two particular individuals got off too lightly.
Perhaps the most notorious example was the one involving feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez. Two people were later found guilty of sending menacing communications after Criado-Perez made a formal statement to police in July 2013 about being harassed online.One received 8 weeks in prison and the other 12 weeks, both of which clearly fit under the six-month maximum sentence, but seemingly offered no satisfaction to the victim of their online activities. So, British lawmakers have decided to "fix" this broken law, but not by disassembling it and allowing existing laws to do their jobs. Instead, they've decided to push for longer sentences in hopes of deterring future bad behavior and to prevent others from taking 8-12 week "vacations" at the local lockup.
But the accused ended up only with short stays behind bars.
Ms Bray’s plan would give magistrates the ability to send such cases for trial at crown court, where the jail term given could be four times longer and there is more time to bring a case. The change will be discussed by a committee of MPs on Thursday and if approved will be added to laws to be voted on later this year.This law isn't specifically a reaction to Criado-Perez's treatment, but rather an amalgamation of all those who have been wronged and, apparently, contacted their representatives about it. MP Angie Bray is being motivated by a constituent's statement that her daughter was "verbally raped" by an older man who sent thousands of obscene texts. Education Secretary Michael Gove spoke about several deaths attributed to cyberbullying in his support of the change.
The law's aim is, of course, noble: to stamp out abusive behavior online. Unfortunately, even the noblest laws have unintended consequences, like the punishment of the merely controversial, rather than true abuse. The law also seeks to exact proxy revenge for those who have been harmed, punishing people whose only crime was mere stupidity.
Lot of people say lots of things online, and not all of it is pleasant. Those championing these laws are seeking to guarantee their constituents the "right" to not be offended. But life's often an ugly place, populated by jerks. But being a jerk "on the internet" shouldn't be a criminal offense. The low bar of a communication possibly "causing distress" isn't high enough to prevent the law from being misused.
If the activities exceed simply being a jerk and move into something more dangerous, existing laws applying to stalking, harassment and making threats should be used rather than adding another layer of legislation over the top. The court of public opinion often weighs in heavily during outbursts of lousy online behavior, something that moves much faster than any court proceeding.
Addressing noxious behavior is fine, but applying a broadly-written law isn't. And expanding the length of imprisonment doesn't fix what's truly wrong with it -- it just makes the law worse.