I had an opinion piece in last week's Sunday Business Post in response to the latest Irish panic about the internet. As it's behind a paywall the full text (with added links) is below:
Legislation is not the answer to abuse on social media
week the Chinese government passed a measure requiring all internet users to register their real names
. The official line has been that the
law is to "safeguard the lawful rights and interests of citizens" and
"social and public interests", but Chinese bloggers have been in no
doubt that it is a response to growing use of the internet to expose
official abuses. It's disappointing, therefore, that some within the
Irish government seem to be considering a similar approach.
background is the suicide of TD Shane McEntee. Some members of his
family and politicians have said that "abuse" directed towards him on
social media over cuts to the respite care grant had caused him great
stress. Social media abuse has also been linked to
other recent suicides, though politicians need to be careful not to
over-simplify the complex causes behind someone deciding to take their
A number of politicians have now called
for regulation of social media and the Oireachtas Committee on Transport
and Communications has scheduled a special meeting
for January to look
into the issue with its chairman, Tom Hayes, saying that "people have to
be made accountable for what they are saying".
calls for "regulation" ignore the reality that social media is already
regulated in the sense that the law applies online as it does offline.
Where defamatory comments are made online then a defamation action can
be brought in the same way as though those comments were made in a
telephone call or letter.
these existing laws, when politicians call for people to be made
"accountable" then either they are unaware of the current mechanisms
to deal with breaches of the law or they have something else in mind,
some new form of regulation which would restrict speech online to a
greater extent than offline.
There are, so far, no
concrete proposals on the table, but there is already hostility among
Irish politicians to the ability which the internet gives users to speak
freely. Ruairi Quinn earlier this year, for example, described the
internet as "a playground for anonymous back-stabbers
one particular issue that is likely to be floated is that of requiring
some form of real name registration for internet users.
proponents of real name laws invariably make the same point -- that
online discussions would be more civil if individuals spoke under their
own names. There is a superficial appeal to this argument even if
politicians themselves show that the contrary is often the case. Our
politicians are never slow to attack each other in the most abusive of
ways, but this does not attract the same political condemnation as
similar remarks made on social media by ordinary citizens.
are, however, very fundamental problems with real name laws.
Fortunately there is international experience to show why this is. In
2007, South Korea adopted a real name verification law
websites with more than 100,000 visitors a day were required to record
the full identity of visitors posting comments using their resident
registration number --- the equivalent to the Irish PPS number. Though
users could still use pseudonyms on these sites, the theory was that
their true identities could be revealed in the case of wrongdoing.
a striking parallel with the current Irish situation, this law was
partly prompted by suicides of celebrities said to have been the victims
How did this experiment fare? In
short, it was a disaster. It was trivially easy to evade --- users
could simply move to overseas websites, making it harder rather than
easier to enforce the law, while also harming the local internet
It created multiple poorly-secured
databases of user identities, which led to South Korea becoming one of
the countries most affected by privacy breaches and identity theft.
importantly, it led to a chilling effect whereby citizens were deterred
from speaking out online for fear of retribution. In 2011, the
government announced plans to abandon the law and in August of this year
the Constitutional Court unanimously ruled it to be unconstitutional
holding that it disproportionately restricted freedom of expression and
did not achieve any public benefit.
the court found that "there is no evidence that the real name system has
significantly reduced the defamatory or otherwise wrongful posting of
The journalist HL Mencken is credited
with the expression: "For every complex problem, there is an answer that
is clear, simple--- and wrong." In the case of social media, real name
legislation is precisely that. True, there are wider issues with
civility in social media --- just as there are with civility in public
It also doesn't help that Irish
politicians have yet to come to terms with how social media amplifies
public opinion, debate and interaction, so that they can sometimes
experience the active citizenry which it enables as a relentless flow of
These, however, are overwhelmingly
issues of manners and social norms --- not matters for legislation. The
few cases which are genuinely defamatory or criminal can be referred to
the legal process, but the remainder are best dealt with by continued
conversation, education and self-moderation by online communities.