Monday 26 September 2016

My tweet may annoy you, but it shouldn't land me in jail

Published 21/04/2015 | 02:30

The internet bill proposed by Pat Rabbitte would have 'unforseen circumstances'
The internet bill proposed by Pat Rabbitte would have 'unforseen circumstances'

Should posting an annoying tweet be a criminal offence? Should sharing something "indecent" attract a fine or possible jail time?

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If legislation to go before the Dáil is adopted, both of these situations could become law.

"A person who sends a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or is indecent, obscene or menacing is guilty of an offence," reads the bill, proposed by Pat Rabbitte.

The legislation would also criminalise "annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another persistently and without reasonable cause".

A conviction would mean up to five years in prison, a fine of up to €75,000 and the confiscation of the sender's phone, tablet or PC.

Is this a proportionate response to the problems of internet trolling and cyberbullying? Might anyone who changes their Facebook profile image to a 'Charlie Hebdo' moniker face jail?

Mr Rabbitte is not a knee-jerk practitioner on free speech issues. As Communications Minister in 2013, he faced down populist calls to force internet providers to block adult content, an issue that British Prime Minister David Cameron made hay on.

But the unforeseen consequences of criminalising "annoyance" or "indecent" content, however well-motivated by a desire to protect people, are a little worrying.

What constitutes "annoyance" or "offence"? In the present marriage referendum debate, offence is taken in large measures by sparring opponents. Indeed, many in the debate take umbrage at the mere existence of the other side.

As for criminalising "indecent" or "obscene" content, unwelcome connotations of a 1950s censorship-friendly past arise.

"I do accept that the words 'indecent' and 'obscene' can attract a different meaning," Mr Rabbitte said. "But it would have to be adjudicated as an offence in each case. There is real damage being caused at the moment. The challenge for us is to ask whether there is anything we can do."

Nobody doubts that there is a general problem with gratuitous offence and harassment online. People can be horrible. Even those who imagine themselves to be on the just side of a debate resort to sneering, pestering and abusive commentary. Outright harassment - sometimes with the goal of causing crushing shame - has been a problem on social media from day one.

"We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years," wrote Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo earlier this year.

But the sharp end of online abuse already attracts criminal sanction. The 1997 Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act is probably the strongest legal tool, as it prohibits the harassment of a person "by any means". Other resources include the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act (1989), the Defamation Act (2009) and a handful of Data Protection Acts.

What kind of incidents do these laws not already protect against?

"At this time, the focus should be on securing implementation of existing legislative requirements across the system rather than seeking to introduce new legislation," said a recent report by the government-assembled expert group on bullying.

This was echoed by the Government's high-level Internet Content Advisory Group last year, which called online abuse a "complex social problem".

Mr Rabbitte would say that the bill is an attempt to get the issue of tackling online abuse back on the table. He is not alone in wishing to do so.

But the price of making life more civil online should not be to criminalise "annoying", "indecent" or "obscene" tweets.

Irish Independent

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