In an ideal world the online commenting function would be a nexus where professional publisher and engaged online reader converge. There is an understandable attraction in fostering an online community responding and reacting to local news.
Yet it seems the creation of such forums is not without risks or negative side-effects. We are seeing a significant increase in the number of complaints arising from this kind of user generated content (UGC).
Earlier this week Labour MP Steve Rotheram spoke in Parliament about the need for stronger new laws to deal with the rise in internet trolls. Mr Rotheram illustrated his speech with reference to the horrific examples of trolling in the cases of Georgia Varley, a girl who died after falling under a train, and relatives of Hillsborough victims.
The operator of any website with a social media function, that allows the contribution of UGC, should take an interest in this particular debate. Without wanting to overlook the impact that trolls have on the subjects of their abuse, the effect on those hosting online discussion must also not be ignored.
There has been a rapid increase in problems caused by either rogue individuals or often groups known as “colluding” trolls where one member of the group acts as the main troll and the others disguise themselves as anonymous members of an online community defending or supporting comments made by the main troll.
For website operators faced with defamatory UGC, much relief can be taken from the hosting defence afforded by S. 1 (1) of the Defamation Act 1996 and Regulation 19 of The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002.
This defence means that if posts are not pre-moderated, the operator of the hosting website is not legally liable for the comments until it has been notified of the content of them. Following notification, the website operator must act “expeditiously” to remove illegal content in order to maintain the defence.
However, the problems caused by internet trolls go beyond the simply legal. Websites which are plagued by such users face a threat to their credibility when they are high-jacked by individuals who proceed to wash their dirty laundry in public. The comments usually have a snowball-like effect as more people become caught up and the sting of the abusive and offensive posts gathers momentum.
By definition, trolls are web-users who want to start a fight, a cyber-space brawl that spirals out from the original subject of their venom. The term “troll” is borrowed from a fishing technique – the comments are likened to baited lines onto which it is hoped the online community will bite.
Add to the reputational concerns, the volume of time and money involved in dealing with these cyber-rogues and the result is a serious thorn in the side for website operators.
Most websites hosting UGC have rules and procedures for dealing with abusive or illegal content. However, even if particular users are banned from an online community, it is virtually impossible to prevent them from re-registering under a different username attached to a new email address.
Mr Rotheram’s proposals for new laws were not met favourably by Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne who said he believed that the current laws are adequate.
He said: “In this regard, it is important to emphasise the oft-repeated clear principle, if it is illegal off-line, it is also illegal online and individuals should be charged and prosecuted for offences they commit irrespective of whether it happens in the street or in cyberspace.
“I do believe that the laws that are in place are sufficient to deal with this problem but we need to be vigilant about this problem and the huge offence it can cause.”
Mr Browne appears to gloss over the many logistical difficulties in bringing prosecutions for offences committed on the internet including jurisdictional hurdles and issues with proving identity.
Quite rightly the primary focus of debates on this subject is on protecting individuals who are targeted by trolls. What, as yet, appears to have gone unrecognised is the impact this is increasingly having on the business of website operators.