Sunday 25 September 2016

Combating trolls must not impede freedom of speech

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

'The large internet companies have faced sustained criticism that they are not doing enough to protect sole citizens and corporations alike from phenomena such as trolling, defamation, unauthorised leaks and even self-inflicted gaffes that cannot easily be removed once posted online' Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
'The large internet companies have faced sustained criticism that they are not doing enough to protect sole citizens and corporations alike from phenomena such as trolling, defamation, unauthorised leaks and even self-inflicted gaffes that cannot easily be removed once posted online' Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

There was a degree of inevitability that a dedicated insurance product to help offset the costs of managing online abuse would emerge.

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For years, companies have satisfied themselves that they have ticked the social media box by having an online presence on channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, to name but a few.

As someone with personal experience of the dreaded internet trolls (I came close to filing a criminal complaint against one such troll) I know only too well how social media - which I adore and use daily - can be something of a doubled-edged sword.

This is especially the case for small and medium enterprises that have embraced the commercial opportunities afforded by social media channels, but which lack the expertise or resources to deal with an attack upon their brand, operations or personel.

The cost of engaging expert legal and public relations advice in the midst or wake of an online attack - which can range from a one-hit wonder to a sustained campaign of harassment - are prohibitive.

The cost of retaining a PR firm for a month is at least €2,000 and there would be little change, if any, if a similar amount of money was handed over to legal counsel for their opinion.

The emotional, operational and financial costs of subduing a crisis, such as attempting to track and take down attackers or mounting a defamation action - with all the attendant risks they can entail - are beyond most small companies' reach.

The large internet companies have faced sustained criticism that they are not doing enough to protect sole citizens and corporations alike from phenomena such as trolling, defamation, unauthorised leaks and even self-inflicted gaffes that cannot easily be removed once posted online.

The Government has also been slow here to reform our laws to reflect the full realities of e-commerce, despite Ireland being the de facto European HQ for all things digital.

And yet we have some of the most draconian defamation and privacy laws that mitigate against fair comment on many matters of public interest, including business.

Perhaps that is why I feel slightly conflicted about AIG, the world's largest insurer, stepping into the reputation management breach and I suspect I won't be alone.

It is vital that businesses are able to respond effectively to all legitimate threats, including online ones.

The courts may ultimately be asked where to draw the line in the most serious or vituperative disputes.

But free speech and robust or otherwise fair comment matters too - let's not go viral on legitimate criticism.

Dearbhail McDonald is INM Group Business Editor

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