On Tuesday a man called Sean Duffy was jailed for 18 weeks for “internet trolling”. He was convicted of an offence under Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act, which reads as follows:
(1) Any person who sends to another person—
(a) a letter, electronic communication or article of any description which conveys—
(i) a message which is indecent or grossly offensive;
(ii) a threat; or
(iii) information which is false and known or believed to be false by the sender; or
(b) any article or electronic communication which is, in whole or part, of an indecent or grossly offensive nature,
is guilty of an offence if his purpose, or one of his purposes, in sending it is that it should, so far as falling within paragraph (a) or (b) above, cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or to any other person to whom he intends that it or its contents or nature should be communicated.
Now, there is no doubt that Sean Duffy’s posts – so far as I’ve been able to ascertain their contents – were despicably vile. I do not wish to defend him or his comments. Indeed – subject to the slight caveat that he may suffer from Asperger's syndrome – he deserves all the condemnation and moral opprobrium that may be heaped on him.
But am I the only one who is rather disturbed by the breadth of this legislation? Surely behaviour like Duffy’s is better dealt with privately – offending parties ought to be socially stigmatized and voluntarily blacklisted by website owners and Internet Service Providers. Just because something is offensive, even morally repugnant, does not mean that it should be a crime.
The way I see it, there is no need to balance the allegedly ‘competing claims’ of freedom of speech and public protection. It is merely a question of letting people assert their property rights to punish or censure unacceptable behaviour. Indeed, I’d go further – it seems to me a sad sign of societal weakness that we are depending on the state to be our arbiter of decency.
Still, this story does raise another interesting issue. Why is it that people on the internet are, quite often, so unspeakably rude? Is it the sense of anonymity? Or is it just that the internet provides an outlet for certain maladjusted and socially inept individuals, who we would not usually encounter in our day-to-day lives? I honestly don’t know.
Whatever the reason, I just wish people would remember that good manners cost nothing, but count for a lot. Even on the internet.