Chapter 7 - Free speech abuses: quantifying the harms and assessing the remedies


Our preliminary research and consultation indicate that significant harms are being experienced by some as a result of the abusive and sometimes malicious use of the internet as a publishing platform. Young people are particularly vulnerable given the all-pervasive nature of social networking in their lives. However the problems are not confined to the young. As we have seen, malicious impersonation and various forms of cyber harassment can have an immensely debilitating effect on people’s well-being and may even impact on their professional and business lives.

Existing criminal and civil law is clearly capable of dealing with many of the types of harmful communication which we have canvassed in this chapter.

However, the current law is not always capable of addressing some of the new and potentially more damaging ways of using communication to harm others. The obstacles include the difficulties the public can experience accessing the law; the adequacy of investigative resources and tools; problems in the way in which offences are defined; and possible gaps in the types of offences currently included in the statute book. In addition those websites which publish user-generated content need specific knowledge of transgressions in order to be able to respond effectively to legitimate complaints.

As well as legal remedies, many social media sites rely on a combination of internal controls, including “terms and conditions”, backed by community monitoring and reporting systems to deal with speech abuses on their sites.

However there is a lack of empirical information about the effectiveness of these self-regulatory systems and given the vast amount of data published on these sites every day there are clearly limits to the amount of monitoring that can take place.

In the following chapter we put forward some preliminary ideas for ways in which it may be possible to address some of the problems confronting those seeking remedies for speech abuses arising on the internet.