Spate of jail terms for online trolls leads UK to re-examine rules

You may remember a court case in the UK that became known, absurdly but accurately, as the Twitter Joke Trial. It involved a guy who jokingly tweeted that he was going to blow his local airport “sky-high”. He was prosecuted and found guilty, but then he appealed and successfully had the conviction quashed a few months ago.

While it seemed then that sanity had prevailed, it turned out that the case of Paul Chambers was only the start. The past months have seen several people in the UK arrested for saying things through social media that have been deemed ‘grossly offensive’. Some have gone to jail.

And now the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, appears to have realised that something is going wrong here. According to the BBC, Starmer is to invite Facebook, Twitter and others to meet with academics and lawyers to discuss the issue, so that new guidelines can be formulated for the police and courts.

As you’ll have guessed, if it wasn’t already obvious through the country’s dreadful reputation for libel tourism, the UK does not offer absolute protection for free speech.

Starmer, at least, thinks the right to be offensive should be protected.

“The emerging thinking is that it might be sensible to divide and separate cases where there’s a campaign of harassment, [or] cases where there’s a credible and general threat, and prosecute in those sorts of cases, and put in another category communications which are, as it were, merely offensive or grossly offensive,” Starmer said. “[It] doesn’t mean the second category are ring-fenced from prosecution, but it does, I think, enable us to think of that group in a slightly different way.”

So what were these grossly offensive online outbursts, and what happened to the people behind them?

All of those cases, with the exception of Stacey’s, were based on Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, a vaguely-modified version of a law that goes all the way back to a 1935 law about threatening or offending people by mail. Now updated to reflect modern terminology, Section 127(1)(a) of the Act applies to anyone who:

“sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”

Stacey, on the other hand, went down for racially motivated harassment.

Now, I’m not a lawyer. But I do know the difference between sending someone a direct message or email that threatens or insults them, and making a ‘joke’ to anyone who’ll listen. It’s the same difference that applies when you consider someone yelling in someone else’s face, or standing on a street corner and ranting about them.

Unlike Chambers, who seems to be a genuinely affable chap, none of the others listed above make a very good impression. What they said ranged from the tasteless to downright nasty.

However, I don’t think it should be illegal to be a troll. There are many reasons for this, beyond the whole ‘free speech’ thing (which I consider to be so obvious that I can’t bring myself to formulate a defence for it).

Online is like offline, just online

Here’s the problem. Social media encourage people to speak their minds, and – while they do technically involve ‘publication’ – what is said on them is so often what people would say to their friends in the pub.

What’s more, so many offensive things get said on social media every day that singling out a few people is deeply unfair. The impression the UK courts are giving is that of making examples of people, more than anything else. If they really want to be fair, they need to thoroughly censor Twitter and Facebook, and that would be a disaster. It would lead to many innocent statements also being censored and… it’s just wrong.

It’s good to know Starmer is looking into this properly now. After all, despite the UK’s mania for surveillance, no-one would put up with every private conversation being monitored in the offline world. To have different rules applying online is an anomaly that needs to be eliminated.

Because, if you don’t want to be offended in the online world, you can always just unfollow or block.