Friday, January 04, 2013

Legislation is not the answer to abuse on social media

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

Earlier this 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.

The 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 own life.

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".

Kneejerk 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.

The criminal law applies in the same way --- in particular, the offence of harassment contrary to the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 has already been used to prosecute online activity. In each case, whether civil or criminal, there are already mechanisms to permit the identification of internet users accused of serious wrongdoing.

Given 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". Consequently, one particular issue that is likely to be floated is that of requiring some form of real name registration for internet users.

The 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.

There 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 under which 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.

In a striking parallel with the current Irish situation, this law was partly prompted by suicides of celebrities said to have been the victims of cyber-bullying.

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 industry.

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.

Most 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.

In particular, the court found that "there is no evidence that the real name system has significantly reduced the defamatory or otherwise wrongful posting of messages".

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 discourse generally.

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 criticism.

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.

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