UK Prosecutors Finally Acknowledge The Need For A Real Discussion About Free Speech Online
from the he-said-what??? dept
As Tim Cushing rightly noted earlier this week, the UK's "Free Speech" laws are more about the many things you can't say. As if to back up that view, in the last few days, there's been yet another case of somebody being arrested there for "an offensive Facebook page."
At this point, you might have written off the UK and its laws as a hopeless case, and made a mental note not to say anything rude if you ever go there. If so, you would probably assume that a new statement about social media prosecutions in a post from the UK's Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), on the official blog of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), is just more of the same. Amazingly, it's not.
It relates to yet another, earlier, case where "a homophobic message" was posted to Twitter. Surprisingly, perhaps, given the UK's track record here, the authorities decided not to prosecute the person involved. The new blog post explains this decision, offering a series of eminently sensible reasons why it would have been inappropriate in the circumstances:
This was, in essence, a one-off offensive Twitter message, intended for family and friends, which made its way into the public domain. It was not intended to reach Mr Daley or Mr Waterfield [the subjects of the message], it was not part of a campaign, it was not intended to incite others and Mr Thomas [the sender] removed it reasonably swiftly and has expressed remorse.
Not content with this unexpected outbreak of good sense, the UK's DPP goes on to make some general observations that are equally notable:
This case is one of a growing number involving the use of social media that the CPS has had to consider. There are likely to be many more. The recent increase in the use of social media has been profound. It is estimated that on Twitter alone there are 340 million messages sent daily. And the context in which this interactive social media dialogue takes place is quite different to the context in which other communications take place. Access to social media is ubiquitous and instantaneous. Banter, jokes and offensive comment are commonplace and often spontaneous. Communications intended for a few may reach millions.
Well, indeed. And thus:
To ensure that CPS decision-making in these difficult cases is clear and consistent, I intend to issue guidelines on social media cases for prosecutors. These will assist them in deciding whether criminal charges should be brought in the cases that arise for their consideration. In the first instance, the CPS will draft interim guidelines. There will then be a wide public consultation before final guidelines are published. As part of that process, I intend to hold a series of roundtable meetings with campaigners, media lawyers, academics, social media experts and law enforcement bodies to ensure that the guidelines are as fully informed as possible.
He concludes with words that echo what many people in the UK have been thinking for last few years:
In my view, the time has come for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media.
Pity it hasn't happened sooner, but better late then never....