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Were Caroline Criado-Perez's Twitter troll tormentors given fair sentences?

Mark Leiser: I am a PhD Candidate in Cyber Law at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. I have written submissions for the Leveson Inquiry into the culture and ethics of the media and for the Scottish Parliament on the use of social media during trials. My PhD is supervised by Professor Andrew Murray at the London School of Economics and focuses on the effectiveness of cyber-regulation. My research and interests revolve around main areas of Internet law and policy including internet governance & regulation, democracy, social media, privacy, and intellectual property. My PhD research focuses on developing a system of modelling to measure the effectiveness and legitimacy of Internet Regulation. I write in a personal capacity.

Caroline Criado-Perez ran a successful campaign to ensure that a female remained on a Bank of England note. Her victorious campaign brought about plaudits and congratulations from many people, including Stella Creasy MP. However, shortly afterwards, Criado-Perez became the recipient of online abuse from trolls on microblogging site Twitter.

Over a period of a few hours, Twitter users Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo sent a barrage of tweets to Criado-Perez. The tweets from Sorley were summarised by the court with the following: “Fuck off and die...you should have jumped in front of horses, go die; I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do... kill yourself before I do; rape is the last of your worries; I’ve just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried; seriously go kill yourself! I will get less time for that; rape?! I’d do a lot worse things than rape you.”

Nimmo’s tweets said: "Ya not that gd looking to rape u be fine; I will find you; come to geordieland (Newcastle) bitch; just think it could be somebody that knows you personally; the police will do nothing; rape her nice ass; could I help with that lol; the things I cud do to u; dumb blond bitch."

Criado-Perez’s statement to the court discussed how scared and frightened she was. She also claimed to have used a significant amount of time and money to hide her location and to “make herself untraceable”. She said she felt “terror every time the doorbell rang”. Her victim statement was a “moving, detailed, and understandable account of the effect these crimes had on her”.

Stella Creasy MP also claimed that the tweets directed towards her were life-changing. She installed a panic button in her house and described how the crimes altered her behavior and affected her public role, her staff, and her family.

The court also explored the sentencing options for the two Twitter posters. For a crime like this, the maximum sentence is a level five fine and a six-month prison sentence. The bracket that the offence falls into has a starting point for a first-time offender pleading not guilty of six weeks in custody, but could result in a high level community order or up to 12 weeks custody.

The judge took into consideration that this was not a single threat, but a series of threats of the worse kind - rape and murder. The judge also made note of the fact that these threats were anonymous, leaving the complainers unsure of how seriously to take the threats.

The judge also seemed to take umbrage with the fact that Sorley had 25 previous convictions for being drunk and disorderly. She was also deemed to be unsuitable for an alcohol rehabilitation plan as she was seen to “lack the motivation”. Nimmo was furthermore accused of blaming the victim because she was engaging him with tweets.

The judge went on to express his dismay at the behavior of the two, noting that Sorley had a 2.1 degree in creative advertising, remained employed, and had a support system. Nimmo made no comment in interview (well within his rights) but the court found no sympathy for a man who used multiple accounts to launch his attack, continued after he was warned that the police would be informed and offered little by way of remorse.

As a result, the court discounted the sentence imposed for pleading guilty early, reducing the burden to the state and the toll on any victims and witnesses. In the end, Nimmo was sentenced to eight weeks and Sorley 12 weeks of immediate custody.

Is this an appropriate sentence?

In the UK it is the police’s remit to protect people from ‘alarm’, ‘distress’ and ‘offence’, and there can be no doubt that both Criado-Perez and Creasy suffered horrible and vile online threats and abuse. I want to be very clear about this: the actions of Sorley and Nimmo were deplorable, wrong, and criminal.

However, I take issue at the role the victim impact statements played in their sentencing. This is because the sentencing decision therefore lacked any context about the entirety of what had happened that day, and in my opinion, applied the wrong legal test.

On the day of the tweets, the Twitter community responded as it should have, by rallying around Criado-Perez and Creasy. The trolls were met with suitable condemnation and vitriol from other users. My question is this: should the subjective response of the victim in a trolling case be the means by which the courts serve punishment? Or should the courts use a reasonable person test that analyses objectively all of the circumstances around an event, particularly one that is isolated in cyberspace, before setting any punishment?

The events on Twitter provide a context for this case which doesn't appear in the sentencing remarks. Neither one of the victims were left vulnerable in cyberspace where the abuse took place, and the tweets sent by Nimmo and Sorley were there for all to see, serving as digital evidence for criminal proceedings to occur. However, without the context of the response of the Twitter community, a custodial sentence of eight and 12 weeks seems excessive. Should Criado-Perez and Creasy have felt less threatened by the massive response to their plight from the rest of the right-minded Twitter community? In Creasy’s case, she took to Twitter to ask for help in identifying the person behind the account that was sending the abusive tweets. “He is socially awkward”, “lives at home with his mother” and “his name is Nimmo” were all offered up promptly by Twitter users.

The court also placed a restraining order on both Nimmo and Sorley - the details of which are not offered, but one imagines that they are, among other things, forbidden from sending any more abusive tweets or they may suffer additional prison time. Furthermore, both are to remain under supervision by a court officer.

As someone who believes custodial sentences should only imposed for the most serious offences, logic questions what an eight-week or a 12-week sentence is really going to accomplish. Deterrence? Possibly, but deterrence often serves as a chilling effect on free speech and it isn't going to act as a deterrent to someone tweeting from another jurisdiction such as the US, which has much less restricted freedom of expression laws. Had Nimmo or Sorley been American, they would still be tweeting away from their mothers’ basements.

There is a prevailing concept at the moment that trolls are contagious and spread horrible infectious comments and threats, and that by banning and removing these people from society the police can disinfect all of this ugliness from the internet. Nonsense. Do people think that if we took all the trolls and all the racists, the sectarians, the anti-semites and all of the national front skinheads pushing offensive messages around Twitter and locked them in prison for eight to 12 weeks that the world would be a better place?

What would happen once they were released from their state-imposed soaking in a prison culture of violence, hatred, and racism?