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Jail Terms for Online Trolls Lead U.K. to Reexamine Rules


Police officers guard an internet cafe on Cheetham Hill Road after raids across the North West in Manchester, England, 2009.

Photograph by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Police officers guard an internet cafe on Cheetham Hill Road after raids across the North West in Manchester, England, 2009.

You may remember a court case in the U.K. 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 a few months ago he appealed and had the conviction quashed.

While it seemed then that sanity had prevailed, it turned out the case of Paul Chambers was only the start. In the past months, several people in the U.K. have been arrested for saying things through social media that have been deemed “grossly offensive.” Some have gone to jail. And now Keir Starmer, director of public prosecutions, appears to have realized that something is going wrong here. According to the BBC, Starmer is to invite Facebook (FB), 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.

If it’s not already obvious through the country’s dreadful reputation for libel tourism, the U.K. 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. [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?

Matthew Woods was sentenced on Monday to 12 weeks behind bars after he made jokes on Facebook about a missing 5-year-old girl named April Jones, who is sadly presumed dead.

Azhar Ahmed was sentenced on Tuesday to 240 hours of community service because he said nasty things, also on Facebook, about soldiers who had been killed in Afghanistan. Specifically, he said soldiers should “die and go to hell.”

John Kerlen was sentenced in May to 80 hours of unpaid work for using a derogatory term on Twitter to refer to a local official.

Joshua Cryer in March was given two years of community service for racially abusing soccer commentator Stan Collymore via Twitter.

Liam Stacey was sentenced in March to 56 days in jail for posting racist tweets when soccer player Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the field.

All of those cases, with the exception of Stacey’s, were based on Section 127 of the U.K.’s Communications Act 2003, a vaguely modified version of a law (from way back in 1935) about threatening or offending people by mail. Now updated to reflect modern terminology, Section 127(1)(a) of the Communications 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 a threatening or insulting message or e-mail and making a joke to anyone who will 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 tasteless to downright nasty.

I don’t think it should be illegal, however, 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 defense for it).

Here’s the problem. Social media sites encourage people to speak their minds, and—while they do technically involve “publication”—what is said on such sites 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. More than anything else, the U.K. courts are making examples of people. 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 U.K.’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.

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Meyer is a senior writer for Gigaom.

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