Online freedom of speech threatened (again)…

The British government is considering legislation that will force websites and internet service providers to disclose the identity of alleged online “trolls”. This is in reaction to the recent conviction of Frank Zimmermann, who apparently sent nasty emails to Conservative MP Louise Mensche and other well-known people including Lord Sugar, military top brass and newspaper columnists. He narrowly avoided a custodial sentence because of his age (60 years old) and “problems” he has suffered. He was given a 26-week jail sentence, suspended for 2 years.

This case stemmed from a message to Louise Mensche after she said that sites like Twitter should be closed down if they were used to coordinate riots, as was alleged after last summer’s riots. Zimmermann sent her a message saying she was “the slut of Twitter” and went on:

We are Anonymous and we do not like rude cunts like you and your nouveau riche husband Peter Mensch. We are inside your computer, all your phones everywhere and inside your homes.

“So get off Twitter. We see you are still on Twitter. We have sent a camera crew to photograph you and your kids and we will post it over the net including Twitter, cuntface. You now have Sophie’s Choice: which kid is to go. One will. Count on it cunt. Have a nice day

Certainly a nasty message.But most regular internet users would probably shrug it off as the meaningless trolling it was. But not poor Louise. She called the police and arranged security for her family. In a victim impact statement she said she had taken the threats seriously. Personally I would advise her to grow a thicker skin if she wants to continue a career in politics. But her case went to court, Zimmermann was punished… and now the government is planning legislation that will force websites and ISPs to help identify anyone who is accused of alleged defamation and trolling. Where is the line that separates free speech and trolling? Who will get to decide that?

I don’t like the look of this. It is a clear attack on freedom of expression, all wrapped up in the Mensche case so we think of (idle) threats to children and are distracted from the fact that the government will be able to easily track down anyone who posts material that the government doesn’t like. This isn’t just ridiculous – it has very dark ramifications in a supposed democracy.

Incidentally, district judge Martin Brown accepts that computer and internet use is a fundamental human right. The judge said he had decided against banning Zimmerman from using a computer. “It had been my intention to prohibit him from using a computer and I accept the human rights angle and I accept the problems of policing that,” he said.

That’s one plus point to emerge from this case. The only plus point. Which is pretty well negated by the prospect of the government’s plans to take away our right to privacy and to freedom of expression. This is seriously bad news.

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