Trolls and the web, from fairy tales to fast-moving consumer goods
New government proposals and legal landmarks on Internet “trolling” could force retailers to cross an important Rubicon, writes Ben Sturgess.
Life often imitates art as we know — and art it seems sometimes imitates life.
The stuff of fairy tales and fantasy, “trolls” aren’t just confined to the Three Billy Goats Gruff fable, they also of course represent a real and present danger on the web as a source of malicious activity intent on stealing user data and more.
So it seems that fairytale villains keep up with modern trends too then.
The government reckons that, once the appended appendices are added to the Defamation Bill, (or, as some might put it, “a libel regime for the Internet”), the new system will work to counter the presence of trolling in the modern Internet age in two ways.
First – by making the process of unmasking malicious messagers less costly for libel and defamation complainants. Second – by affording website operators greater legal protection against said claimants so long as they identify the authors of any “iffy” or suspicious material that is.
Alternatively of course, site operators can always take offending material down or prevent it from being posted in the first place.
The trick (especially for businesses in the fast moving cloud service-driven online retail space) lies in knowing the difference.
What is and isn’t defamatory?
What might and might not be construed that way in the future? Negative comments posted on a retailer’s chat forum? Bad product reviews for fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs)?
How about one-star feedback about five-star hotels? No? Are you sure? Because all of the above have been subject to legal action over the last year or two…
The recent early landmark ruling for Nicola Brookes suggests the measures might work at least in part however.
(Just to be clear, this is the Nicola Brookes, who won a court order forcing Facebook to reveal the identity of web trolls who had falsely branded her with incorrectly levied personal accusations.)
Once again though, there is this schism – and it lies in the new legislation’s twin goals, as cited earlier and as noted by Justice Secretary Ken Clarke himself.
To reiterate, the stated aim is to simultaneously protect both people’s reputations and genuine whistle-blowers. Which is great. Or at least it would be if those things weren’t diametrically opposed.
The early reactions of the website operators proves it. Seemingly uncertain about what is and isn’t defamatory, and unwilling to take a punt, many sites are already starting to remove perfectly innocent (or at least not guilty) material ‘just in case’.
(To paraphrase Privacy International’s Emma Draper, when it comes to choosing between a user’s welfare and their own, most businesses are only ever going to go only one way.)
… and that’s one fairytale unlikely to end happily ever after.