Troll under a bridge (c) Katy Silberger 2012, downloaded from Flckr

Regulating online harassment

Trolling, harassment, bullying, and blackmail

The controversy during summer 2013 about the trolling and online bullying has been brewing for some time. The drip feed of horrible stories about online bullying and young people taking their lives has suddenly grown to a torrent of outrage at the misogyny and threats of violence towards prominent and distinguished women such as Mary Beard (professor of classics at Cambridge University) and the journalist and feminist Caroline Criado-Perez who campaigned for more women on English banknotes.  [Jane Austen on the £10 banknote - Yay!].  Both women have faced extensive harassment via Twitter, including direct threats of violence.

Bullying, harassment, and the potential for violence are among the more serious threats faced by users of social media.  Could this be because social media are seen as anonymous and therefore with no consequences for the perpetrators?

There have been some interesting responses to the harassment and trolling:

1. Boycotting services

News reports and interviews in the media suggest that there was a strong debate ranging about the relative merits of boycotting offending services.  One argument is that by boycotting a service, pressure is put on service providers to provide a safe online environment.  To counter this, some feminists have asked: “Why should the victims of harassment be harried out of public forums?”  The onus should be on the service provider to create a safe environment.  I sympathise with both views although I like the idea of defiance rather than withdrawal of custom.

2. Revealing trolls’ identities

One service provider has already offered to provide details of the identities of the most offensive trolls to the authorities and in the past where this has happened, there have been successful prosecutions.  For instance one person was sentenced for racist tweets about Fabrice Muamba after he suffered a cardiac arrest on the football pitch in 2012.  In the same year a 17-year-old given a harassment order for trolling Tom Daley the Olympic diver on Twitter.  However prosecutions are few and far between.  Even those prosecutions that have resulted are seen in some quarters as ‘heavy-handed’ or inappropriate.

This type of response puts the service provider in the position of arbiter of what is acceptable behaviour.  This can lead to potentially undesirable situations where operators are co-opted by repressive regimes to identify opponents, as happened with some of the Middle Eastern pro-democracy demonstrators.

3. Advertiser response

The withdrawal of advertising from the Ask.FM website has been a striking response to the adverse publicity about trolling, following the suicide of a young person in Scotland in July 2013.  In an effort to distance themselves from negative publicity, Sun newspapers, EDF, BT and Specsavers have withdrawn their advertising from Ask.FM.  In this case the operator, Ask.FM, has responded by announcing that it is taking steps to block persistent trolls and to cooperate with the police over instances of serious abuse.  This looks like a particularly effective means of regulating service providers because non-compliance hurts them in the pocket.

4. Legislation

In the United States Facebook has famously responded to the threat of new legislation by voluntarily increasing the privacy protections of users.  In the UK the recent trolling incidents have led to debate about strengthening the legislation.  For instance the Defamation Act 2013 makes provision for statutory instruments and for the introduction of regulations by the Secretary of State and this has been suggested as a possible avenue for dealing with recent online abuses.


No one method of regulation is likely to provide complete protection against online harassment.  Perhaps existing laws should be used more actively, rather than creating new laws.

It does seem that public pressure has several effects: it affects advertising decisions which in turn affect the operators of social media; it influences legislators and regulators; it changes the behaviour of users – by boycotting services, or by defying the offenders; and it changes the lives of those who troll, are caught and brought to account.

Sources for this article are derived from news items on the BBC News website.

About the author

David Haynes

David Haynes

David is a Director of Aspire². His interests lie in metadata, information taxonomies and information governance. He is an experienced PRINCE2 practitioner. David leads courses on his specialist areas and is author of ‘Metadata for Information Management and Retrieval’. Currently he is researching on the regulation of information at City University, London.