Protect rights to digitally disagree

Ask an advertiser to solve a problem and they’ll make you an ad. Ask the Law Commission to solve a problem and they’ll make you a law.

The Law Commission has reviewed “Harmful Digital Communications” and has recommended a suite of new laws.

Its major recommendation would outlaw behaviour online that grossly offensive, or menacing behaviour, that causes harm. This simply extends what already exists – although our community is tending toward a low threshold of what is regarded as offensive and harmful.

What worries me is that the Commission likes the idea of bringing the threshold down and criminalising communication that simply causes “serious distress and mental harm”. Although it thinks this ought to be a “last resort”. But if this concept is introduced, it will not be a last resort – it will be the first one.

For example, in the UK, the wonderful new era of digital communication laws based on interpretation of emotional harm saw a boy arrested for being mean to an Olympic athlete over Twitter.

I defend rights to free speech that causes distress or mental ‘harm’. If we were going to start prosecuting people for being mean, acting like a dick, and causing mental anguish, we’d all be prosecuted at least once in our lives – wouldn’t we – be honest.

The rush to this last resort law will happen because the Commission plans to entrench it with the creation of a “mini-harassment court” – a means by which people can up the ante and quasi-legalise their personality disputes. It will be like a Family Court for unrelated people who have even fewer reasons for incivility. It extends the arm of the law to cover people being emotionally crappy to each other and having strongly expressed disagreements, rather than requiring them to harden up or sort it out themselves.

The bit of the report rushed over by commentators was the recommendation to upgrade existing laws to include when they are committed using digital technology. As far as those laws are justified, that’s sensible.

Then again, I didn’t realise it was a crime to incite someone to suicide. Since suicide is, stupidly, illegal, that’s a logical extension of the stupidity. 

Although digital technology increases the ease and reach of other silly behaviour, it doesn’t mean we should outlaw the silly behaviour. We have previously chosen to give people the right to express dislike and disagreement, and we should continue to do so.

The Commission has done what must have been expected; it has recommended new laws that attempt to bind in law, and sanitise, the intractable complexities of disagreeing with each other.

For similar views, see: TechLiberty.

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