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We Should Stop the Internet Bullies

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Laws should be applied to cyber space in the same way we apply laws for other public spaces. More and more people live part of their lives on social networking sites. The same freedom from bullying and intimidation should be applied for sharing friendships and building communities online that are applied for enjoying the physical world in which we all live. The same way we find anti-social behaviour unacceptable in the physical world, we should not accept it in cyberspace and we should take action against the nasty behaviour of a minority.

The social networks are a public space and people should feel free to join in and express themselves and not feel afraid of the bullies - those who seem to find the courage to indulge their cruel natures - often while remaining anonymous by hiding their real identity.

Why should anyone, who uses social networking working sites be allowed to write things that are intended only to make other people feel bad, distressed or ashamed and take away other peoples enjoyment?

Some so-called 'trolls' have left unpleasant and offensive messages on Facebook memorial sites. A 17-year-old has apparently sent some nasty messages to Tom Daley. Others - often young people have picked on fellow school pupils and bullied them in some cases apparently leading to suicides.

I think most of us can imagine why it is done - there is something in human nature which if it goes unchecked makes some people gain a perverse satisfaction by making someone else feel bad. I think it is right that the law is applied to the internet as it is applied to other public spaces to prevent this behaviour.

If someone is afraid to go out of their house because of the nasty behaviour of other people then the law should be applied to protect that person so they have the same freedom as everyone else. Too simplistic? I think it is exactly the same thing - real public spaces and the internet are the same.

How do we draw the line between free expression and what should not be allowed? One way is through open debate which is not limited by the bullies. We already have Public Order laws to penalise people who cause harassment, alarm or distress to other people in real public places. We have laws against harassing other people meant to protect people like ex-partners from stalkers which uses the same measure - does it cause harassment alarm or distress? There are plenty of well accepted precedents - laws intended to prevent people from being bullied and intimidated as they go about their public lives and they should be protected in the same way on the internet.

There are already laws against sending menacing messages by electronic means which are more directly applicable to social networking sites - although even these laws might well need bringing up to date but they are a good template to build on.

Obviously I'm not saying that the police should be breaking down doors every time someone says something nasty to someone else but there needs to be limits set by someone and it is not clear that those that run social networking sites will and take on the responsibility.

There will be mistakes made by Police and CPS - it looks like they got it wrong over a silly joke about blowing up an airport - although it would help if people could resist making jokes about blowing things up! The authorities must and, most likely will, learn from this and take a different view next time. Other mistakes will be made in the future but I think the Police and CPS should have a role in policing the public cyber space just as they have in the real public spaces.

Attempts by goverments and police to close down free speech and the expression of opinion should be resisted robustly whenever necessary but no one has a right to impact on someone else's quality of life just for the sake of their perverse desire to make someone else feel bad. We can have robust debates without cruel abuse.

What should not be allowed is the cruel misogyny, homophobia, cruel messages about people dead relatives. Nasty people saying nasty things and claiming it as free speech should not succeed.

If this does not sound very liberal - then I am for the freedom of the majority to enjoy going onto the internet and expressing themselves and not for the freedom of people to choose to be cruel.