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Chloe's law: Justice Secretary Chris Grayling's proposals for dealing with a "baying cyber mob" are not just illiberal but pointless (photo: Anthony Devlin/PA Archive/Press Association Images)

Shortly before last May's European Elections, Michael Abberton heard a knock at the door of his Cambridgeshire home. Standing in his doorway were two policemen. As an assessor for an exam board and a Green Party blogger, Abberton can't have been used to visits from the police. He asked the officers what he could help them with. They said they were there to talk about something he had posted on Twitter. It soon emerged that the post that had prompted the visit was an image of a spoof poster titled "reasons to vote UKIP" which listed some of the party's policies, including raising income tax for the poorest 88 per cent of Britons and scrapping employee holiday entitlement. A UKIP councillor had seen the tweet and called the police to complain.

"It wasn't until after they left that I questioned why they had visited me," said Abberton of what for him must have been a surreal, unsettling encounter. "A complaint had been made but with no legal basis. Not a police matter. So why did they come to my home in the middle of a Saturday afternoon? Also, seeing as my [Twitter] profile doesn't have my location — how did they know my address, or even the town I live in? And is it not a matter for concern that a political party would seek to silence dissent and debate in such a manner?"

Voices from across the political spectrum condemned the police's visit to Abberton's home. Simon Parr, Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire, conceded that his force had made a mistake: "In this instance police attendance was not required and I have asked for our approach to this sort of incident to be reviewed to ensure we do not get involved unless there is clear evidence that an offence may have been committed." Mistakes happen, and every police force will have its fair share of jobsworths. Surely this clumsy intrusion is nothing to get too worried about. But consider carefully what happened here: a politician contacted a police officer because someone publicly disagreed with him — this was not a personal attack or a smear, but criticism of the policies he supports — and asked for his political opponent's message to be taken down. That the police officer who took the original complaint did not explain to the UKIP councillor he was employed to keep Cambridgeshire safe, not to monitor and police political debate, is worrying enough. The confusion of the two police officers who got as far as Abberton's doorstep is in keeping with the confusion Britain has got itself into when it comes to how best to regulate online speech.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling certainly had more sinister characters than Abberton in mind when, in October, he announced plans to quadruple prison sentences for online abuse from six months to two years. "These internet trolls are cowards who are poisoning our national life," Grayling told the Mail on Sunday. "This is a law to combat cruelty — and marks our determination to take a stand against a baying cyber-mob. We must send out a clear message: if you troll you risk being behind bars for two years." Grayling's proposed reform has become known as "Chloe's law" after Chloe Madeley, the daughter of television presenters Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan, who, when her mother said she thought the rape committed by footballer Ched Evans was "less serious" because it did not involve violence, received a tidal wave of vitriol on Twitter including several rape threats. 

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