UK Interim Guidelines And Consultation On Prosecuting Cases Involving Social Networks

from the beyond-banter dept

As we reported a few months back, Keir Starmer, the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions, made the remarkable suggestion that “the time has come for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media.” That debate has now arrived in the form of a UK consultation on “prosecutions involving social media communications,” which takes as its starting point a series of interim guidelines for UK prosecutors when they are grappling with the freedom of speech issues raised by such cases. Here’s how Starmer describes the initiative:

These interim guidelines are intended to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the need to uphold the criminal law.

They make a clear distinction between communications which amount to credible threats of violence, a targeted campaign of harassment against an individual or which breach court orders on the one hand, and other communications sent by social media, e.g. those that are grossly offensive, on the other.

The first group will be prosecuted robustly whereas the second group will only be prosecuted if they cross a high threshold; a prosecution is unlikely to be in the public interest if the communication is swiftly removed, blocked, not intended for a wide audience or not obviously beyond what could conceivably be tolerable or acceptable in a diverse society which upholds and respects freedom of expression.

The interim guidelines thus protect the individual from threats or targeted harassment while protecting the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humour, even if distasteful to some and painful to those subjected to it.

Well, that remains to be seen. Drawing the line between distasteful banter and true harassment is bound to be a tricky exercise, but it’s good that the UK Director of Public Prosecutions at least recognises that they are different, and that prosecutors must strive to distinguish between them when deciding whether to bring cases to court. The interim guidelines are available, and comments can be submitted until 13 March 2013.

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Comments on “UK Interim Guidelines And Consultation On Prosecuting Cases Involving Social Networks”

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Anonymous Coward says:

The following should be treated differently in considering whether an offence has been committed, especially with respect to harassment.
1) Direct messaging email, sms, phone calls.
2) Posting to a common forum, irc, other peoples blogs
3) Posting on a personal blog or page.
Case 1, persistent sending of messages, after being asked to stop can be a crime, and does not raise free speech issues.
case 2 should require a higher threshold, as communication is indirect, that is the offended person can ignore the message, or even respond.
case 3 should only result in action for extremely offensive messages, as whoever reads them seeks out the site.

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