UK law wrestles with online 'trolls'

2012-10-12 07:29

London - For many they are the scourge of the internet, but rights campaigners in Britain are increasingly leaping to the defence of online "trolls" amid a string of criminal trials over tweets and Facebook posts.

British prosecutors are to revamp their approach to cases involving social media following an outcry over freedom of speech, after "offensive" online comments from bad jokes to homophobic insults resulted in arrests and even jail.

A 19-year-old man was handed three months in prison on Monday after posting crude jokes on Facebook about a missing 5-year-old thought to have been murdered in Wales.

Matthew Woods' comments prompted an angry mob to gather at his home, and he was initially arrested "for his own safety".

But many contrasted his jail time with a community sentence handed on the same day to a TV comedian, Justin Lee Collins, who was found guilty of a campaign of abuse of his girlfriend, in which social media was not involved.

Criminal conviction

"People post sick, offensive, horrible and stupid things on social media all of the time... As a society we should try to make people nicer, cleverer and less offensive. But is sending people to prison, along with violent rapists and thugs, the right way to do it?" questioned Adam Wagner, a blogger on legal issues.

Woods' case follows that of Azhar Ahmed, 19, sentenced to community service for declaring on Facebook that "all soldiers should die and go to hell".

"I think we have seen some very clearly unjust prosecutions," said Padraig Reidy, news editor at campaign group Index on Censorship.

"We need to find a balance. There's no doubt people can be harassed or menaced quite horribly on social media," he added.

Finance worker Paul Chambers, 28, has become a poster boy for the freedom of speech argument since he tweeted in 2010: "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

His tweet - sent in frustration at the airport in Nottingham because he feared he might miss a visit to his girlfriend - led to his arrest and a criminal conviction for sending a menacing message, in one of the first cases of its kind.

Chambers fought a legal battle lasting more than two years to overturn the conviction, winning huge online support in what became known as the "Twitter joke trial". It was finally quashed in July.

Online harassment

"The important thing with the eventual ruling is that the court found people do have a right to be hyperbolic, insulting and maybe offensive online. That in itself should not constitute a crime," Reidy said of the case.

But more prosecutions were being brought under communications and public order laws dating from before Twitter existed.

In particular, the Communications Act 2003 - used for many of the cases - has come into question. It prohibits "the sending to another of any article which is indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat".

"In 2003, only perhaps [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg knew that within the next few years literally billions of people would become mini-publishers on a public communications network," wrote Wagner.

Courts have also dealt with concerted campaigns of online harassment, while fresh legal ground was broken in cases of incitement, contempt of court and libel on social media.

But it was the arrests over offensive social media posts that prompted a rethink by prosecutors.

On 20 September, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) threw out the case of a man who posted a homophobic tweet about British diver Tom Daley during the Olympics, and said it would hold a consultation before issuing new guidelines.

Niche medium

It hinted some cases might have gone too far.

"If the fundamental right to free speech is to be respected, the threshold for criminal prosecution has to be a high one and a prosecution has to be required in the public interest," director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer said.

Guidelines are expected in 2013, but experts stress it is also a case of social media users gaining more understanding of how the networks function.

Twitter has existed since 2006, but was initially a niche medium; now it has 10 million users in Britain alone.

Legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg said that in the Daly case, "the problem was that this guy didn't really grasp what the nature of a tweet was and is, and a lot of people don't".

"A tweet is not an e-mail, it's a broadcast. When people send what they think of as a message to 100 friends, that's then completely outside of their control - it can be forwarded to and read by millions."

But for the high court judges in the Twitter joke trial, the crux of the matter was that social networks could have either function.

"'Tweets' include expressions of opinion, assertions of fact, gossip, jokes (bad ones as well as good ones)... For some users, at any rate, it represents no more and no less than conversation without speech," they said.

  • julian.booyens - 2012-10-12 07:38

    There's a few trolls here that could learn from this but then my day would be boring if it were not for them. I have a good laugh now and then reading the comments on news24.

      Hein Van Wyk - 2012-10-12 08:02

      true and its so easy to piss ppl off

      gary.bloom.967 - 2012-10-12 10:35

      don't forget that sometimes the comments are more interesting that the actual article.

      charlesdumbwin.dumbwin - 2012-10-12 10:42

      Agree with all of the above, but trolls are bad and despicable and they quite often ruin people's articles!

      felix.feline.3 - 2012-10-12 11:40

      Funny how articles on trolls attract trolls :)

  • joe.farmer.92775 - 2012-10-12 07:54

    will this political correctness leads to a Nazi state?

  • rhyno.vermaak - 2012-10-12 08:24

    WTF?? Sending people to jail now? Who decides what is offensive and what not? They are opening Pandoras box with this one.

      rob.gunning.1 - 2012-10-12 12:53

      I agree. I've seen people get offended about the most ridiculous things. I for one will continue to say whatever I think.

  • Grant Wykerd - 2012-10-12 08:33

    It's about accountability! Simply put, to post your comment in any social medium, you must know that the applicable authorities can locate you and prosecute you for incitement, racial slander, etc. Then and only then will people start thinking of what they saying and what impact it will have on others. No more hidden identities as this I believe will stop stupid comments from ever been published!!! And for those of you who feel that this will infringe on your rights, then you are part of the problem as nothing would ever happen to you if you kept your comments above board (not below the belt). Now put that in your pipe and smoke it!

      wordis.word.1 - 2012-10-12 09:00

      Who decides what is above board, malema? Hitler?

      wordis.word.1 - 2012-10-12 09:01

      Am I allowed to mention Hitler? Don't want to be arrested or anything...

      rob.gunning.1 - 2012-10-12 12:53

      Your comment offends my beliefs. Please somebody arrest this stupid man.

      sven.gohre - 2012-10-12 17:51

      @Grant, who or what will determine what is "Socially acceptable? Will it be the Christian Bible Punchers? The Muslim Mullahs? Mother Grandy? Or will it be you, with your narrow minded and easily offended dispensation? Freedom of Speech is just that, the "Freedom" to say what you want, when you want. It cannot ever be restricted, as then it would not be "Free Speech". As a great man once said; "I may not like what you have to say, but I will give my life to protect your right to say it".

  • ben.louw.5 - 2012-10-12 08:39

    This is such BS. Yes his comments was a bit rough and insensitive, but what right does the UK government have to jail somebody for saying something?!?! Freedom of speech? Oh Britannia how you are falling... Sieg Heil!!

  • wordis.word.1 - 2012-10-12 08:56

    I'm not a part of yo system, maaaaaaaaaan!

  • glen.e.huysamer - 2012-10-12 09:20

    Well the Brits are so offensive they feel offended all the time about every thing... eevvvverrrryyyythiiinnng!

      glen.e.huysamer - 2012-10-12 09:23

      They have their noses in the air all the time, ALLLLL TTTHHHEEE TTIIIIMME! To close to you know what?

  • Grant Wykerd - 2012-10-12 09:46

    Your conscience will decide! Those with one will know better and those without will learn to develop one once a knock on the door from their respective authority comes to help them understand it better!!! Get it!? For example, how many times do catch yourself wanting to say one thing but on reflection, opt to use a more acceptable approach? That is your conscience speaking, so listen to it and be guided accordingly! Hope I have managed to elaborate....... Peace out!

      sven.gohre - 2012-10-12 17:53

      Grant, go read what I wrote on your first illogical comment.

  • mshiniboys - 2012-10-12 10:48

    If people who make sense are going to be called trolls then we are going nowhere as a global world.There is no crime in telling people when to get off.

  • rob.gunning.1 - 2012-10-12 12:52

    Say what you like, when you like, how you like, to who you like, whenever you like. Freedom of expression and freedom of speech are more important than supression of discussion due to the fear of being arrested or jailed. Free Yourself!!!! Say It!!!

  • rob.gunning.1 - 2012-10-12 12:54

    Heil Hitler!

  • ognjen.jakov - 2012-10-12 19:41

    They were crapping USSR during Communist era for sensoring their citizens. Now the west is doing the same. 1984 that was just a typo.Champions of democracy my ass. Oops i hope i dont get arrested now

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