Welcome news – police create online hate crime hub

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The Guardian reports the Metropolitan police are creating an Online Hate Crime Hub.

The detectives staffing it – nicknamed “troll hunters” – will be specially trained to identify people using the cloak of online anonymity to commit hate crimes and similar offences.

In my view, this is a thoroughly positive step that recognises modern problems need modern solutions.  Liberal Democrats should enthusiastically welcome this initiative.

Hate crime is terrible for the people who suffer from it.  We have public order laws to prevent people being threatened or abused in public.  We have laws against stalking, harassment other unreasonable behaviour that causes fear, alarm or distress.  We have laws against threats and menacing words being communicated phone letter, phone or other technology.

Many of these existing offences can be committed online.  That is not new. For example, just as a stalker can misuse a car, bicycle, facemask, phone, telescope, or camera so they can misuse the internet.  The internet has given stalkers a new tool to misuse, while the rest of us use it to improve our lives and the lives of others too.

A problem has been the anonymity that internet provides offenders.  But we know that in many with some work, perpetrators can be identified.  Social media profiles can be cross-referenced and identified through some basic techniques (that are well described online) but may take some time.  This is sometimes as simple as doing an internet search on the nickname or email address a person has used, which may link to a page or website with information that narrows down where and who a person is.

Alternatively, once the police have an IP address for a user they can obtain a warrant to require the internet service provider (BT, Virgin, Talktalk, etc) to identify their customer.  How to you get the IP address?  Sometimes it can be extracted from the communication, other times another production warrant is needed to obtain it.

In cases that I have been involved in professionally, companies like Ebay are very good at helping combat fraud and very co-operative in providing IP addresses of people who may have used their site for criminal purposes.  Some social media sites and very unco-operative and some US States arguably allow companies to hide data that could prevent crime the way Switzerland, Lichtenstein or the UK have been accused of allowing banks to launder criminal money.

They key point is that in more and more cases it is possible to identify an offender online.  The techniques for doing this are constantly developing and it is a specialist skill.  It makes sense for the police to create a specialist unit rather than bundle it with the general crime palette that basic police units deal with daily.

This is a progressive step to deal with a new problem.

I have heard two potential objections:

“the money could be better spent on ‘real’ crime”,  and

“what about free speech”. 

In my view, both these objections are without foundation.

Whenever there was new legislation or new action against hate crime some people made this objection.  Online crime (whether fraud, paedophilia or abuse) I real crime to the victims.  They said it when Revenge Porn was recently made a criminal offence.  Those victims deserve action as much as any other victim of crime.  The creation of a specialist unit is not a waste of money.  It will mean money is better used because the specialists will get better results that just lumping it in with everything else.

There are legitimate limits to free speech, namely speech with harms others.  We make fraudulent speech or threatening speech illegal because it harms other and limits the freedom of those people.  The creation of this Hub does not change the law.  It does not place any new limit on free speech.  It simply means that those who are committing what are already offences will stand a greater chance of being caught and punished and victims protected.

Liberal Democrats, as a modern future-focussed party, who demand that the freedom of all to live their lives is protected, should applaud this step and demand more action on these lines.

* Antony Hook was #2 on the South East European list in 2014, is the English Party's representative on the Federal Executive and produces this sites EU Referendum Roundup.

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43 Comments

  • Seriously?

    “There are legitimate limits to free speech”

    Like Jokes about Robin Hood Airport. Professional provocateurs using the phrase “sweaty jocks” in a column in a newspaper. Rather than assuming any new (ridiculously named) “troll hunters” are wonderful anyone concerned with free speech or value for public sector spending should be very sceptical.

    “people using the cloak of online anonymity to commit hate crimes and similar offences.”

    Words on the internet.

    So not attacks on individuals, not vandalising someone’s home or work place, not the silent calls late at night (which actually required at least minimal amount of effort). Words on the internet.

    If you have seen what lots of people complain about online this “Hub” will be over ruin with people complaining about nothing.

    The odd (civilian) specialist in a force to help those actually investigating crimes navigate the process for obtaining electronic information for an investigation would be fine, as the investigation prioritisation would still sit with officers looking at real crimes, not just spats on the internet.

    Online platforms need to have better filter tools to allow people to manage their own experience, but given how many people don’t even use the current tools available (including the “log off” button) and demand other act for them this team will just get deluged with petty comments.

  • paul barker 17th Aug '16 - 4:38pm

    I completely agree, Tim Farrons attack on this initiative was misguided. Free speech does not include abuse or intimidation.

  • Phil Beesley 17th Aug '16 - 4:45pm

    @Anthony Hook: “We have public order laws to prevent people being threatened or abused in public. We have laws against stalking, harassment other unreasonable behaviour that causes fear, alarm or distress. We have laws against threats and menacing words being communicated phone letter, phone or other technology.”

    You’ve identified, Anthony, abusive scenarios between people. We didn’t really need new laws — assuming that barristers comprehend technology and explain it to judges (who may not be all that daft) — to change things.

    We can’t just carry on making new laws to address different ways of offending people.

  • Tony Dawson 17th Aug '16 - 4:47pm

    I will be intrigued to see where the police will find this ‘training’ at a level of skill which is required. One of the biggest problems they will face is how to discern between general badinage and serious hate-generated stuff. Both (totally inappropriately) go by the name of ‘trolling’ these days. ‘Trolling’ actually started life as a word which was derived from fishing: I have successfully trolled for mackerel in the Western Approaches. It meant putting something up on the internet (bait) tricking people into making a response. Of course, some ‘trolling’ could be pointed and/or nasty hence the way the word has come to be chronically misused. It reminds me of ‘sanctions’ a word which at the time of the Rhodesia crisis took on a meaning precisely the opposite of what its meaning actuially was.

    To comeback to the police, I do seriously hope that this works but I am sceptical. My experience of assisting people who have reported this sort of thing to the police in recent months is that the complainants are now well beyond the police ‘complaints’ process (totally useless) and are now at the point of trying to bring charges against specific police personnel who were meant to be involved for covering up the crime and conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

  • paul barker

    Have you seen what people claim is “abuse or intimidation” recently?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Aug '16 - 5:05pm

    Antony

    I , as with Paul Barker, above , welcome this , if , as with psi here too , we can be sure they mean hate crimes !

    I have mentioned before , Nottingham police are collating research and information that includes reports of wolf whistles on the street , as included with hate crimes !

    We have just had an article on this . We need a debate that goes further . We are the party , of any , to oppose hate , as we at all times are not hateful, and I am someone at all times who is strong on crime and criminality , particularly the very serious and violent . This type of thing might be serious. Seeing is believing on this!

  • @ Antony Hook Antony, you do not mention Tim Farron’s reported opposition to this initiative. Would you like to comment ?

  • It will just lead to a lot of pointless investigations and silly prosecutions. The internet does not need the thought police lead by a bunch of self appointed moral guardians and pressure groups defining “hate” according to gnomic social mores and political trends. It actually needs less policing.

  • What is “hate crime” and how does it differ from “don’t like” crime, or the right to offend and be offended without any crime being committed. If I say I hate religious fundamentalism of any flavour as it is a major factor in virtually every conflict in human history it is bound to offend religious fundamentalists. But is it a crime and if so is it a hate crime? I would rather have law enforcement based on objective criteria rather than subjective political correctness. What tends to happen is a few cases of police / CPS stupidity in prosecuting a wolf whistle as a hate crime will undermine what needs to be done with threats of violence particularly towards women and minorities.

    A good start would be to define hate crime clearly and objectively. Set some rules that might deter the crime in the first place. I’m not sure I understand those rules if they cover wolf whistles. Good job I can’t whistle.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Aug '16 - 11:24pm

    Stevan Rose

    I have been trying to say just that on two threads , well done !

  • One problem is that Hate Crime is a fairly narrowly defined set of crimes – if you are black or gay or muslim you will be protected by hate crime legislation and hate crime units. If you are targetted for other reasons – often a group without a strong political lobby organisation – for example a goth, transvestite, sex worker or someone with a non-conventional sexual identity then those provisions don’t apply.

    I’ve never really supported the idea of hate crime legislation and would rather see a broad discretion given to Judges to treat it as an aggravating factor. It has been suggested that Judges didn’t understand things well enough to do that – but that can be said of a huge range of other areas and it can be address through guidance and training.

  • Stevan
    Well there’s a definition on Wikipedia now:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hate_crime

    A hate crime (also known as a bias-motivated crime) is a prejudice-motivated crime, often violent, which occurs when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her membership (or perceived membership) in a certain social group. Examples of such groups can include but are not limited to: sex, ethnicity, disability, language, nationality, physical appearance, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation.[1][2][3] Non-criminal actions that are motivated by these reasons are often called “bias incidents”.

    “Hate crime” generally refers to criminal acts that are seen to have been motivated by bias against one or more of the types above, or of their derivatives. Incidents may involve physical assault, damage to property, bullying, harassment, verbal abuse or insults, mate crime or offensive graffiti or letters (hate mail).

    Seems to me most journalists are hence in the frame. In fact some of the catty blog posts here also qualify.

  • What Liberals really need to do is to stop calling people racist or xenophobic or ‘guilty of fostering an environment of hate against immigrants’ simply for exercising their democratic rights to dare to want to exit the EU. Much talk of tolerance from Farron and other neo-puritans but little demonstration that he even knows what the word means.

    Meanwhile most folk in the real world outside of Liberal Towers are actually worried that the Continental violence from radical islamists will spread here and will be fostered by SJWs who are apparently more worried by imaginary hate crimes such as islamophobia than real hate crimes such as blowing innocent folk up, running over them in a lorry or randomly hacking them to death.

  • JamesG

    I would agree that the habit of silly name calling needs to end and people need to engage in the actual arguments.

    However I am not going to stop being concerned about crimes committed against someone due to certain characteristics (I don’t use the silly term Islamophobia as it makes no sense), there are certainly crimes committed which have an anti-Muslim motivation and they should also concern is as well as crimes committed motivated by Islamist ideologies.

    I have would defend anyone’s right to criticize the ideology of Islamism or the religion of Islam. However to deny that there are crimes committed against Muslims due to their religion is ridiculous.

    Not that this would mean I agree with the legal concept of hate crimes, the victim of a crime suffers regardless of motivation.

  • PSI;
    I agree.
    However, I think the problem is that we have governments that have pro-actively destroyed countries which increases the reach of extremism and are now trying to police the inevitable fallout by attempting to control language etc. You can’t on the one hand stoke up fear and then on the other wonder why it turns into a wider suspicion.

  • Glenn

    We’re getting off on a tangent, but I think the situation is even worse than that as we are stuck with what happened in the past but we are continuing to make a complete dogs breakfast of the current situation. The lack of cold hard reasoning to look at the whole situation and address all aspects will just leave an endless mess.

  • Anyone with half a brain can get round this, tor for example or a vpn. All this intuitive will do is catch those of very little brain. The low hanging fruit, still justifies a few jobs I suppose.

  • PSI
    Nobody is denying such attitudes exist. However it’s blowing it out of proportion that is the problem because then we ignore or downplay the far bigger issues: Something btw that Liberals seem to specialize in lately! As far as online haters are concerned, this is well counterbalanced by folk best summed up by Stephen Fry :
    “…let us grieve at what twitter has become. A stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended – worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know. It’s as nasty and unwholesome a characteristic as can be imagined. It doesn’t matter whether they think they’re defending women, men, transgender people, Muslims, humanists … the ghastliness is absolutely the same. It makes sensible people want to take an absolutely opposite point of view. I’ve heard people shriek their secularism in such a way as to make me want instantly to become an evangelical Christian.”

    These types are the ones who bleat about hate crimes all the time. They’d lock up most of society for some half-imagined, minimally offensive phrase.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 18th Aug '16 - 12:52pm

    Since people can choose to take offense to anything people do not and should not have the right not to be offended. It’s clear to me that many lib dems are authoritarian social democrats, not liberals. In power these people would behave like new labour.

    UKIP are the liberals defending free speech now. Ironic isn’t it.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Aug '16 - 1:45pm

    James G , psi , Glenn et al

    Such real sense ! Well done indeed ! And what a great quote from Stephen Fry !

    The reason I give cautious support to the initiative described by Antony above in the article , is in the hope of , on this , the common sense we yearn for . I am dubious as well as cautious , when I think of my local police force re the wolf whistles on the street .

    One of the reasons I am so concerned not to go too far down the road of total demonisation of the innocuous , nonoffence, but , to some , admittedly , irritation , is the knock on effect it can have on the truly offensive.

    James G is so correct , once we put everything in the same box , tar everyone with the same brush , many people switch off , then the real offenders get off !

    The sentences for even the most brutal rape , and other violent , hideous crimes , are , in my opinion, too lenient at times. It is why I am so strong on the need to free the prisons of the completely non violent low level offenders. Yet ,when we criminalise what the more puritanical , want to stop us trivialise by being supposedly more radical, they are being nothing of the sort !

    To go overboard is to end up at sea ! To do nothing is to end up going nowhere !

  • Lorenzo
    It’s worth noting that Tim Farron himself could easily fall foul of any such legislation if he were to come right out and state some of his deeper religious convictions. He was defended by self-styled ‘classical Liberals’ here.
    http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/tim-farron-falling-foul-of-the-new-inquisition/17221#.V7WwcyZwZaQ
    where he refused to answer whether he thought homosexuality was a sin and was later subject to twitter abuse for this fence-sitter of a reply:
    ‘It’s not our views on religion that matter. What matters is whether we go out and fight for the freedom of every single individual to be who they want to be – and that’s what makes a liberal.’

    I fear he is lately not practising what he preaches.

  • Hopefully the abuse heaped on corporations does not go unpunished. Whether it is Sir Green, Southern Rail, Mike Ashley, Emma Harrsion and A4e, G4S or Monsanto, bullying and abuse of corporations is a serious issue.

  • Clive Simpson 18th Aug '16 - 3:10pm

    The definitions of “harm” and “violence” have been stretched to the point of meaninglessness – the mere presence or even mention of an individual who has views certain people dislike is seen as harmful; having to walk past a decades old statue of a Victorian colonialist has been described as “violence”. Given this, you can imagine that this Hub will soon be jammed with the oversensitive and those with an agenda to silence the voices of people whose views they find “problematic”. There is nothing liberal about this, it is the complete opposite!

  • Iliberal rubbish.
    Offence & abuse are just that. If violence is threatened or incited that is a different matter. Defamation, for example, has always excluded ‘vulgar abuse’
    I’m with Marshall Mathers when he paraphrases J S Mill as “I find it offensive that you find me offensive”

  • Before everybody starts jumping up and down and screaming about invasion of privacy, has anybody researched the number of suicides stemming from cyber abuse ?

  • @David Raw – I have tried but it the data seems hard to come by. From what I can find mostly anecdotely, it seems to be a small percentage of the shocking high 6000+ annual suicide rate in this country.

    It is cited as a factor in a far higher number of attempted but failed suicides, where the victims are around to talk about it afterwards.

    Do you have better data?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Aug '16 - 8:49pm

    David Raw

    While I think we need to be very vigilant on invasion of privacy and not flippant, your point is a good one on the harm that can be done by real abuse in any context , including the internet.

    Where it is nasty and especially prolonged , there we come down like a ton of bricks to protect the vulnerable victims of tomorrow !

    Mill is our guide on this momentary siting of him on libel is fine , on harm and the extent of it we must , where it is obvious , act !

  • Well, here’s some evidence from the US. The NSPCC in the UK are working on research and have similar results ;

    Cyberbullying Rampant on the Internet

    Sam Laird has published an article on Mashable Lifestyle that details with vivid statistics just how rampant and pervasive the problem of cyberbullying has become. Consider these stats presented in the article:

    42% of teenagers with tech access report being cyberbullied over the past year
    Of the 69% of teens that own their own computer or smart phone, 80% are active on social media
    The average teen sends 60 texts per day – reducing face-to-face communication skills
    Teen texting rate is DOUBLE the adult texting rate
    Girls 14-17 text more – 100 per day
    7.5 million Facebook users are under 13 years old
    81% of teens say bullying online is easier to get away with
    3 million kids per month are absent from school due to bullying
    20% of kids cyberbullied think about suicide, and 1 in 10 attempt it.
    4500 kids commit suicide each year
    Suicide is the No. 3 killer of teens in the US. (Car accidents #1, Homicide #2)

    So, let the purist libertarians give some thought to all that.

  • Jonathan Ferguson 18th Aug '16 - 10:02pm

    Antisemitism is pure evil. That is ‘hate speech’ to Nazis. Capitalism is better than an extreme form of socialism like the Soviet Union… that is ‘hate speech’ to the far left. Women should be equal to men. That is ‘hate speech’ to the ‘Men’s Rights Community.’

    How silly, I hear you say!

    Yes, it’s silly in 2016.

    But if these laws remain on the books in 2026, or 2036, or 2096, will it still be so silly?

    God knows!

  • “the number of suicides stemming from cyber abuse ?”

    I think you need to be careful about cause and effect. Having suffered from extreme clinical depression more than 20 years ago I know that something insignificant to the presumed aggressor, a mild criticism, can trigger intense feelings of worthlessness that could easily turn to suicidal thoughts. Can that person who placed the straw that broke the camel’s back, where there is no personal knowledge of the victim or their mental health, be held responsible. Irrationality and paranoia are common in such cases and you can’t go through life walking on eggshells on the off chance that you may unintentionally trigger a disproportionate reaction. So not in my view.

    But where it’s an extension of physical bullying, or the victim cannot avoid the cyber aggression because of their job, like female MPs, or violence is threatened, then whilst less physical harm may actually be done to the victim, possibly less mental harm if the victim has been desensitised, it strikes me as far more serious.

    The test being intent to do harm rather than the harm itself. Those like myself that have spent time in law enforcement (Customs for me), will know that absolute offences are easy to deal with as no judgement is needed to determine the existence of a crime. However offences requiring evidence of intent are sometimes impossible if the suspect doesn’t admit it. Bear in mind there will not be the resources to spend time building a case for intent as in a homicide. So to avoid being discredited this unit needs to be looking for absolute offences with no requirement for telepathy. Did the suspect make a threat of violence for example.

    The reference to IP addresses underlines another of the difficulties. That might identify a subscriber but not the offender. It isn’t difficult to hack your neighbour’s WiFi router and everyone can use a public hotspot with false credentials. Serious offenders will use a proxy server overseas and encryption and secure deletion software to keep their computers clean. You can trap the careless idiots but it would be too time consuming to catch those taking just basic precautions. So this unit will clear the low hanging fruit(cakes) but little more. But as a starting point we need a full judicial definition of online hate crime that isn’t a political correctness wish list.

  • David Raw’
    It’s nothing to do with being purist libertarians. There are already laws dealing with abusive behaviour and threats. This hub actually seems to be about politics and the notion of “hate crime”. What I’m worried about is the potential for it turn into is an attempt to prosecute people for holding ideas other people, including myself, find offensive or wrong. I do not like far right wing politics and I’m not terribly fond of a lot of the attitudes found in religions, but that does not mean that people who hold views I as a liberal genuinely think are hateful should be criminalised. To me one of the problem is that what you’ll end up with is an endless scrap fought over identity politics.

  • Lester Holloway 19th Aug '16 - 8:46am

    Is this an all-male thread?

  • Rightsaidfredfan 19th Aug '16 - 9:10am

    @lester

    Funny you should say that because I find feminists who make gross generalisations about men offensive. Now i used to think that they had that right and if I didn’t like it to bad if just have to put up with it but now I’m wondering if it might be hate speech. It hurts my feelings and makes me feel really marginalised, so should I now just claim its hateful and report it to the police whenever I come across it?

  • David Raw

    “has anybody researched the number of suicides stemming from cyber abuse”

    And the can is open. Do you think that most bullying is illegal? Is the low level nastiness that children often exhibit towards each other in schools should be a criminal matter? We already have ramped up our use of criminal intervention with children to an unhealthy level.

  • David Raw

    Have you thought about the figures you quote?

    Most of the most effective bullying that involves online activity that may actually have an impact on someone will be a continuation of something going on line in person. Not many people who are mentally healthy are going to be bothered by someone on the internet saying something to them.

    People using social media to extend offline bullying is more likely to have an effect. You have even identified that:
    “3 million kids per month are absent from school due to bullying”
    Staying home from school is a protection from real world bullying not cyber bullying.

    As Stevan Rose points out, if there is an already pre-existing mental health issue that needs to be handled as that.

  • Lester Holloway

    “Is this an all-male thread?”

    Not sure how that is relevant?

    I know David Raw has brought up suicide and men make the vast majority of those cases, but I can’t see that is important. Both men and women are free to contribute to any discussion of any issue.

  • David Raw

    “4500 kids commit suicide each year”

    If you are trying to link suicide to cyber bullying then presumably we should see a massive spike after 2005 when we the social networks started to pick up in popularity. So lets look at your choses source the NSPCC:
    https://www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/research-reports/how-safe-children-2014-indicator-03.pdf
    Page 24 shows the suicide rates the undetermined number drops off when the confirmed rate rises very slightly (probably helped if people had been expressing their concerns on social media).

    Bullying and particularly the mental health of the young are serious issue to be considered carefully. They are not justifications for wasting resources on the trivial or restricting free speech further.

  • “Is this an all-male thread?”

    That would require you to know the gender of all posters and not all user names are unambiguous. There are small numbers of Lesters that are apparently female.

  • A few previous threads are relevant to this discussion:
    https://www.libdemvoice.org/online-abuse-might-not-break-bones-but-it-can-come-close-to-breaking-your-spirit-50681.html
    https://www.libdemvoice.org/swinson-and-farron-speak-out-against-online-abuse-after-threats-sent-to-labour-mp-jess-phillips-48071.html

    David Raw
    “Before everybody starts jumping up and down and screaming about invasion of privacy”

    I’m a little confused why you went off down the privacy path, as the two points raised prior to that had been free speech and appropriate use of police resources. Most people would surely be happy with the right of the police to use an appropriate legally controlled warrant system over seen by an independent judiciary, so unless you are suggesting that we should move to a snoopers charter on steroids system where the police can trawl personal infomation without oversight I don’t see your point.

  • Phil Beesley 21st Aug '16 - 4:15pm

    According to the Guardian article: “The team, including one detective inspector, one detective sergeant, and three detective constables, will identify the location of crimes and allocate them to the appropriate force. They will also aim to develop links with volunteers who will report both criminal and non-criminal online hate incidents.”

    For the Detective Inspector and junior officers, this isn’t fast track to the murder squads. But it is worthwhile policing.

    Five people looks like a small team to me — this is a Met rather than ACPO/NPCC initiative. If you search for “ACPO” and “hate crime”, you’ll get a few informative results, perhaps zero for “NPCC” and “hate crime”.

    Good luck to the team, who will meet all sorts of people in their jobs. And not many criminals.

  • Phil Beesley

    “They will also aim to develop links with volunteers who will report […] non-criminal online hate incidents.”

    This is public money, many crimes that have very real victims are unable to be properly investigated because resources are scares. This is a fact of life, priorities always have to be chosen and some things will make the cut and some won’t. You want this to make the cut?

    If decision taking rests with regular forces who instigate any investigations and any central “electronic experts” take their lead from the regular force then the priority will be set by the local officers looking at the full spectrum of crimes. If you allocate a central team of “troll hunters” they will certainly generate files of information that will take up lots of time of local officers (or less time and more risk if they de-prioritise them) to investigate “incidents” (non-criminal and barely criminal with the odd serious matter) when other crimes are pushed down the list.

    This sounds remarkably familiar with massive waste of money on the “high profile” investigations of recent years producing nothing but denying appropriate police resources to “normal” people. I frankly wouldn’t be surprised if this was an idea to have come out of South Yorkshire Police, it is in line with their idea of priorities.

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