Do people have the right to bully others online?

A short article by writer and activist, Jillian York, exploring the difficulty of minimising cyberbullying while protecting the right to freedom of speech.

Who is responsible for halting online harassment?

Many individuals—particularly women and certain minorities—say that online harassment is on the rise. It's arguable that social media has created this rise because it's easier to say unpleasant things online, from behind closed doors, than it is to someone's face. A number of people and organisations, fed up with the prevalence of cyberbullying and trolling, have called for governments and social media companies to find solutions.

Locating a solution that both curbs harassment and preserves freedom of expression is not that simple. Many have looked to corporations, such as Facebook or Twitter, calling on them to report harassment directly to police, deactivate accounts, or both. Although corporations do in many countries have an existing legal obligation to report certain types of content (such as “hate speech” or incitement to violence), they frequently fail to do so.

This alone is not justification for companies not to act, rather, their failure or inability to act on the most serious of content puts into question their capacity for dealing with harassment complaints. Furthermore, corporations are not in the best position to judge what qualifies as bullying; often they don't have staff on board with the expertise to do this and their lawyers are often prone to over compliance with the law, putting into jeopardy speech that does not qualify as harassment.

How can the law protect us?

Many countries, including the United Kingdom, have laws intended to prosecute those who engage in harassment, but such laws often go unenforced. All over the world, law enforcement is often dismissive of complaints about bullying that occurs solely online. While some have called for new laws aimed specifically at addressing online harassment, the risk in taking an approach that divides our lives into “online and offline” are numerous: speech that would typically go unpunished would likely be subject to additional scrutiny, and the police are unlikely to be able to deal with the large number of complaints that would inevitably arise.

Can we define harassment? 

All of these proposals have the potential to limit freedom of speech. While cyberbullying and trolling are serious problems, they call for careful solutions. First, harassment must be clearly defined. It is not merely offensive or persistent speech, rather, it is characterised by its hostility and the impact that it has on individuals. Any legal solution to combating this must involve careful, case-by-case consideration of complaints. Blanket bans on certain types of speech will not solve the problem, and more importantly, run counter to international law.

How can we protect freedom of speech?

Corporate policies addressing online antagonism must also be carefully crafted. Although social media companies (most of which are based in the United States) have the legal right to remove content as they see fit, the use of their sites by people all around the world puts them in a position of great responsibility when it comes to upholding the principles of free speech. In other words, content take-downs and account deactivations by companies can in some cases amount to censorship. Rather than task corporations with deciding what is or is not harassment, users of these sites should be equipped with tools to effectively block other users. They should also be empowered to report cyberbullies and trolls to the police when necessary.

Harassment all too often has the effect of silencing free speech, but responding to censorship with more censorship isn’t the answer. Rather than risk silencing even more speech, those working to stop online bullying should approach the subject with creativity and compassion.

How do we protect the right to free speech and what are the issues that we face doing so?

  • Jillian York
  • Jillian C. York is a writer and activist focused on the intersection of technology and policy. She serves as the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where she works on issues of free expression, privacy, and digital security.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.