Nearly twenty five years after the advent of the Web, and longer since the birth of the internet, we still hear demands that the internet should be regulated – for all the world as if people who use the internet were not already subject to the law.
The May 2017 Conservative manifesto erected a towering straw man: “Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.” The straw man even found its way into the title of the current House of Lords Communications Committee inquiry: “The Internet: to regulate or not to regulate?”.
The choice is not between regulating or not regulating. If there is a binary choice (and there are often many shades in between) it is between settled laws of general application and fluctuating rules devised and applied by administrative agencies or regulatory bodies; it is between laws that expose particular activities, such as search or hosting, to greater or less liability; or laws that visit them with more or less onerous obligations; it is between regimes that pay more or less regard to fundamental rights; and it is between prioritising perpetrators or intermediaries.
Such niceties can be trampled underfoot in the rush to do something about the internet. Existing generally applicable laws are readily overlooked amid the clamour to tame the internet Wild West, purge illegal, harmful and unacceptable content, leave no safe spaces for malefactors and bring order to the lawless internet.
A recent article by David Anderson Q.C. asked the question ‘Who governs the Internet?’and spoke of ‘subjecting the tech colossi to the rule of law’. The only acceptable answer to the ‘who governs?’ question is certainly ‘the law’. We would at our peril confer the title and powers of Governor of the Internet on a politician, civil servant, government agency or regulator. But as to the rule of law, we should not confuse the existence of laws with disagreement about what, substantively, those laws should consist of. Bookshops and magazine distributors operate, for defamation, under a liability system with some similarities to the hosting regime under the Electronic Commerce Directive. No-one has, or one hopes, would suggest that as a consequence they are not subject to the rule of law.
It is one thing to identify how not to regulate, but it would be foolish to deny that there are real concerns about some of the behaviour that is to be found online. The government is currently working towards a White Paper setting out proposals for legislation to tackle “a range of both legal and illegal harms, from cyberbullying to online child sexual exploitation”. What is to be done about harassment, bullying and other abusive behaviour that is such a significant contributor to the current furore?
Putting aside the debate about intermediary liability and obligations, we could ask whether we are making good enough use of the existing statute book to target perpetrators. The criminal law exists, but can be seen as a blunt instrument. It was for good reason that the Director of Public Prosecutions issued lengthy prosecutorial guidelines for social media offences.
Occasionally the idea of an ‘Internet ASBO’ has been floated. Three years ago a report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism recommended, adopting an analogy with sexual offences prevention orders, that the Crown Prosecution Service should undertake a “review to examine the applicability of prevention orders to hate crime offences and if appropriate, take steps to implement them.”
A possible alternative, however, may lie elsewhere on the statute book. The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 contains a procedure for some authorities to obtain a civil anti-social behaviour injunction (ASBI) against someone who has engaged or threatens to engage in anti-social behaviour, meaning “conduct that has caused, or is likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to any person”. That succintly describes the kind of online behaviour complained of.
Nothing in the legislation restricts an ASBI to offline activities. Indeed over 10 years ago The Daily Telegraph reported an ‘internet ASBO’ made under predecessor legislation against a 17 year old who had been posting material on the social media platform Bebo, banning him from publishing material that was threatening or abusive and promoted criminal activity.
ASBIs raise difficult questions of how they should be framed and of proportionality, and there may be legitimate concerns about the broad terms in which anti-social behaviour is defined. Nevertheless the courts to which applications are made have the societal and institutional legitimacy, as well as the experience and capability, to weigh such factors.
The Home Office Statutory Guidance on the use of the 2014 Act powers (revised in December 2017) makes no mention of their use in relation to online behaviour. That could perhaps usefully be revisited. Another possibility might be to explore extending the ability to apply for an ASBI beyond the authorities, for instance to some voluntary organisations.
Whilst the debate about how to regulate internet activities and the role of intermediaries is not about to go away, we should not let that detract from the importance of focusing on remedies against the perpetrators themselves.
This article gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.