By Oisín Phillips
It is evident that the awareness of the use of social media as a tool of harassment has grown significantly in the past decade, most likely due to large high-scale results of such harassment, most notably that of which faced by Amanda Todd in 2012. More recently, several high-profile instances of online harassment has been found in the cases of Captain Tom Moore, whose family revealed following his death that they had never informed him of the online hatred directed towards him, media personality Gemma Collins who spoke to Piers Morgan of the various death threats she had received from online users, and Katie Price who had been sent a “disgusting” and “racist” video targeted against her son Harvey who was born with ADHD, experiences partial blindness, and has Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
What is noticeably different between 2012 and today, however, is that the conversation regarding online harassment is no longer treated so lightly, which of course is a positive. On the other hand, contentions still remain. The debate has shifted from whether or not online harassment is a serious issue, towards the legal protections for potential victims or ramifications for offenders of online abuse. With 90% of the UK public using the internet for hours on a daily basis, how can the government significantly reduce the already high-risk of internet users becoming victims to such harassment?
The crux of this debate rests in the balance of security vs freedom: the safety from online abuse vs the civil liberty of privacy. First, in relation to security, the goal is to significantly reduce, or completely eradicate, all forms of harassment; online and offline. In terms of legal solutions, there exists a track record amongst the Conservative Party for heavy online regulation, as evidenced by the Investigatory Powers Act (2016) which gave the government a much more involved role in cyber surveillance. Furthermore, Theresa May’s attempts to pass an Online Harms Bill would aim to ensure protection of internet users from online harassment and illegal attacks, along with “enforcement powers to take action against companies that fail to fulfil their duty of care.” As 46.6% of people in employment were working from home during the first months of national lockdown, and as schools were reduced to an online-only education experience in January 2021, it appears that there certainly is the plausible case to be made that the Online Harms Bill will ensure the protection from online harassment along with the prevention of other crimes committed through the use of online resources.
On the other hand, so too is there the case to be made for freedom. While the ‘protection of freedom of speech’ movement has been hijacked by far-right political groups in efforts of normalising hate speech, the argument promoting freedom rests instead on the civil liberty of privacy. The aforementioned Investigatory Powers Act (2016) has been widely criticised as an extreme invasion of privacy and was cited by the Chinese Communist Party as inspiration for its own intrusive cyber surveillance measures. This is without mentioning that if the Online Harms Bill were to be imposed, online trolls remain able to hide their identities using Virtual Private Networks to remain anonymous. As the UK’s cyber surveillance laws are already restrictive, imposing further regulations and enforcement tools would severely reduce the right to privacy among innocent users of the internet, while online trolls would be able to continue harassment without detection.
Therefore, the solution to solving online trolling is shared with the solution to the prevention of all cyber related offenses: education. With the significant increase of reliance of the internet due to COVID-19 lockdown measures, the need to educate members of the general public regarding internet security has never been more essential. With an increased focus on education, rather than punishing offenders after the victim has already suffered, the government has the ability to ensure the safety of internet users from such harassment before it takes place. Furthermore, with more education regarding the nature of online trolls, i.e. what would cause them to commit online harassment, there is the possibility of significantly limiting a large amount of online harassment occurring in the first place. The solution will not be found in placing more restrictions on the innocent general public, rather in the possibility that education can significantly reduce the likelihood of future online harassment from taking place.