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In UK, Twitter, Facebook rants land some in jail

Associated Press Modified: November 15, 2012 at 6:46 am •  Published: November 15, 2012
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On Sunday — Remembrance Day — a 19-year-old man was arrested in southern England after police received a complaint about a photo on Facebook showing the burning of a paper poppy. He was held for 24 hours before being released on bail and could face charges.

For civil libertarians, this was the most painfully ironic arrest of all. Poppies are traditionally worn to commemorate the sacrifice of those who died for Britain and its freedoms.

"What was the point of winning either World War if, in 2012, someone can be casually arrested by Kent Police for burning a poppy?" tweeted David Allen Green, a lawyer with London firm Preiskel who worked on the Paul Chambers case.

Critics of the existing laws say they are both inadequate and inconsistent.

Many of the charges come under a section of the 2003 Electronic Communications Act, an update of a 1930s statute intended to protect telephone operators from harassment. The law was drafted before Facebook and Twitter were born, and some lawyers say is not suited to policing social media, where users often have little control over who reads their words.

It and related laws were intended to deal with hate mail or menacing phone calls to individuals, but they are being used to prosecute in cases where there seems to be no individual victim — and often no direct threat.

And the Internet is so vast that policing it — even if desirable — is a hit-and-miss affair. For every offensive remark that draws attention, hundreds are ignored. Conversely, comments that people thought were made only to their Facebook friends or Twitter followers can flash around the world.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that First Amendment protections of freedom of speech apply to the Internet, restrictions on online expression in other Western democracies vary widely.

In Germany, where it is an offense to deny the Holocaust, a neo-Nazi group has had its Twitter account blocked. Twitter has said it also could agree to block content in other countries at the request of their authorities.

There's no doubt many people in Britain have genuinely felt offended or even threatened by online messages. The Sun tabloid has launched a campaign calling for tougher penalties for online "trolls" who bully people on the Web. But others in a country with a cherished image as a bastion of free speech are sensitive to signs of a clampdown.

In September Britain's chief prosecutor, Keir Starmer, announced plans to draw up new guidelines for social media prosecutions. Starmer said he recognized that too many prosecutions "will have a chilling effect on free speech."

"I think the threshold for prosecution has to be high," he told the BBC.

Starmer is due to publish the new guidelines in the next few weeks. But Chambers — reluctant poster boy of online free speech — is worried nothing will change.

"For a couple of weeks after the appeal, we got word of judges actually quoting the case in similar instances and the charges being dropped," said Chambers, who today works for his brother's warehouse company. "We thought, 'Fantastic! That's exactly what we fought for.' But since then we've had cases in the opposite direction. So I don't know if lessons have been learned, really."

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Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless