Should Trolling Be Illegal?

Nobody likes Internet trolls. These faceless bullies get a kick out of lurking around forums or comment threads waiting for some unsuspecting user to say the wrong thing only so they can pounce on them and rain down insults. The topics been in the news...

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Oct 18 2012, 5:00pm

Nobody likes Internet trolls. These faceless bullies get a kick out of lurking around forums or comment threads waiting for some unsuspecting user to say the wrong thing only so they can pounce on them and rain down insults. The topics been in the news lately after a 15-year-old teen named Amanda Todd killed herself following a barrage of online bullying that spilled over into her real life. Said troll first got Todd to send him pictures of herself, and then he turned around and distributed them to her friends and family. That led to kids bullying Todd in real life, and after she posted a video on YouTube, an obvious cry for help, she committed suicide.

The story of Amanda Todd is a terrible one, but it’s hardly unique. Earlier this year, German model Claudia Boerner put her head in the oven, after she made an appearance on a cooking show. In this case, it wasn’t one troll, but a hoard of them who made fun of her appearance, accused her of showing off and made comments about her “fake breasts.” Or there’s the case of Natasha McBride, a 15-year-old British girl who threw herself under a train after being bullied, only to be bullied more on the Facebook memorial page. The girl was dead, and the trolls wouldn’t let up.

Now that everybody’s good and mad about trolls, let’s talk about what you can do about it. Can you call the police? Yes, you can, but it’s going to get really complicated really quickly. First of all, you have to find the troll. There’s a lot of debate over when and how to unmask a troll, a debate that includes a lot of talk about the First Amendment and the right to anonymity online. Once you break the law, though, that right gets adjusted slightly, giving police some tools to track you down. (Or Anonymous could go after you like the did Amanda Todd’s bully.) It is against the law to troll, so this could happen. There’s a federal law that was tweaked back in 2006 and now more or less covers trolling. The relevant section reads:

Whoever…utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet… without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person…who receives the communications…shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

In other words, if you get caught trolling, the Feds can throw you in the clink for up to two years. In specific states, the laws against online harassment are starting to reflect those of real life harassment, and in some cases, the penalties are severe. A telecommunications harassment bill in Arizona identifies trollish behavior as a misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500, but if a judge determines that a suspect’s trolling activity resembled stalking, he could sentence a convicted troll to 25 years in prison. Most trolls, we’d guess, haven’t even been alive that long.

Now that cyber bullying is becoming a national issue, we can probably expect more conversation about the consequences of trolling, and we’ll see if it leads to some arrests. Then again, you’d think that the police would have better things to do than arrest pimply teenage boys with self esteem issues, but when those trolls start driving their peers to suicide, things get more serious. Let that be a reminder to you trolls out there. Yes, you can get arrested for trolling, and no, there is no Reddit in prison.

Image via Flickr

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