There have been several tragic deaths in the last few months that have been attributed to “cyberbullying”, the most recent involving Shane McEntee.

Since then TDs have been complaining that people have been venting their anger over the recent budget cuts via social media and fear a larger campaign next year due the inevitable abortion debate.

Now rather than figuring out why people are angry or using the existing channels on the various services to report abuse, the calls for regulation has begun.

Daragh O’Brien has written an excellent post (spurred on by a tweet about a report on Six One news) on why this is typical knee-jerk nonsense from people who want to seen doing something but haven’t actually thought it through.

He breaks down why such calls for regulation is a bad idea into three broad reasons. To start with is a philosophical question:

Bad Idea Reason #1 – What is Identity?

Requiring people to post comments, write blogs, or tweet under their own identity creates a clear and public link between the public persona and the private individual. The supporters of any such proposal will argue that this is a deterrent to people making harsh or abusive comments. However, in a fair society that respects fundamental rights, it is important to think through who else might be impacted by a “real names” policy.

In Ireland, people who would be affected by a “real names” policy in social comment would include:

  • Public servants who cannot comment publicly on government policy but may be affected by it
  • Survivors of abuse
  • People with mental health concerns or problems
  • Whistleblowers
  • Celebrities.

A real names policy would require that every time Bono tweets or blogs about Ireland, Irishness, or Irish Government policies he would have to do it under the name Paul David Hewson.

Add to that the massive technical headache that real names cause software developers leads us on to the next problem:

Bad Idea Reason #2 – How will it work exactly?

If verifiable identities are required for comment, then how exactly would a small personal blog that is used to exercise my mental muscles outside of my work persona (domestic use) be expected to handle the overhead of verifying the identity of commenters in a verifiable way.

Would I be expected to get people to register with the blog and provide evidence of ID? Would I be able to get a grant to help implement secure processes to obtain and process copies of passports and drivers’ licenses? Or will the State just require that I shut up… shop? Would the State indemnify me if this blog was compromised and data held on it about the identity of others was stolen?

It’s always easy to make a wild statement about something being built (like a real names database), but when someone with a bit of technical know how comes along it falls like a house of cards.  Concerns about the data being stolen are often ignored until it actually happens, as it did with South Korea’s “real name” database.

Finally, we have issue of laws hanging around beyond their sell by date

Bad Idea Reason #3 – The logical principle must be technology neutral

Blogging, tweeting, social media… these are all technologies for self-expression and social interaction that barely existed five years ago and where unheard in the mainstream of a decade ago. Therefore any regulation that requires identification of commenters must be framed in such a way as to anticipate new technologies or new applications of existing technology or risk near instant obsolescence. Therefore the regulation would need to be technology neutral. Which means that, in order to avoid it being discriminatory and to ensure it has the fullest possible effect, it would need to be applicable to other forms of technology.

Laws continue to exist until they are actively repealed (as evidenced by the recent highlighting of Section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861).  Our TDs are not technical gurus (as they are displaying in spades here) and would not be expected to have enough vision to see what’s coming next year never mind 5 or 10 years down the line.  If there was to be regulation it would need to be worded very carefully or it becomes a barrier to newer, innocent developments.

That’s all well and good, but the wails of “THINK OF THE CHILDREN” could possibly drown it all out. Daragh gives a chilling example from a talk by security researcher Mikko H. Hypponen that we can draw direct parallels with:

In the 1980s in the communist Eastern Germany, if you owned a typewriter, you had to register it with the government. You had to register a sample sheet of text out of the typewriter. And this was done so the government could track where text was coming from. If they found a paper which had the wrong kind of thought, they could track down who created that thought. And we in the West couldn’t understand how anybody could do this, how much this would restrict freedom of speech. We would never do that in our own countries.

If a direct line can be drawn from something the Stasi would do to a law that is being discussed, you’re doing something badly wrong.

The Stasi are long gone and it might be dismissed as fear mongering and not comparing like to like.  International best practice would be to compare potential laws with those existing in other countries.  South Korea’s law (brought in for similar reasons) has been struck down by their constitutional court as it was prior censorship and “violated citizens’ privacy, was technically difficult to enforce and was ineffective at stopping online criticism”.  On the other hand, China has just introduced their version to crack down on dissent online about corruption in the government.  In Germany, the right to have an anonymous account in enshrined in law (German Telemedia Act) and a German data commissioner is taking Facebook to task over its real name policy which forbids pseudonyms.

So what to do about bullying online?  Well, Daragh points out lawmakers don’t have to do much as there’s already laws such as the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997 (for instance section 10 covers harassment) that can be used.  The laws may need a small bit of tweaking to bring them fully up-to-date but that is preferable to a raft of new, badly thought out legislation.

Broadsheet has its own problems with anonymous posters but we would fight to the death for your right to be able to post anonymously (but break the law you’ll be hung out to dry).

But really, this is all beautifully summed up in a tweet:


Calling The Tweet Police

2012: the year the political and media classes turned on internet users (via @tjmcintyre)

Oireachtas committee to examine social media role

No need for legislation to curb harassment from social media trolls

RTE probe after ‘deplorable’ tweet attack on senator

Legislation is not the answer to abuse on social media