Free speech advocates say UK is too harsh in policing tweets

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Social networks, Twitter

Twitter, Tom Daley, Ryan Giggs and Imogen ThomasUK residents are among the world's most prolific Twitter users, but academics and free speech advocates warn that the British government's harsh response to tasteless or offensive tweets could have a chilling effect.

Speaking to the BBC, Dr. Bernie Hogan of The University of Oxford's Internet Institute said the UK government was being "incredibly heavy-handed" in its response to abusive online speech, and was well out in front of other countries in taking legal action against such behavior.

Hogan's comments come amid growing public concern within Great Britain over legal action and criminal prosecutions tied to online speech.

Most recently, a 17-year-old boy from Weymouth, in Dorset, England, was arrested after sending a insensitive Twitter message to British diver Tom Daley on July 30. The message chided Daley for finishing fourth at the London Olympics, saying he had let down his father, who died in May 2011 from brain cancer.

Tweets to Tom Daley

The tweets prompted an immediate response, via Twitter, from Daley and other Team GB athletes and officials.

The youth was arrested by Dorset Police on "suspicion of malicious communications" on July 31 after receiving a tip from the public. The boy was given a "harassment warning" and had his computer and phone seized in the incident, the BBC reported.

At issue is a controversial provision of the UK's Communications Act of 2003, which outlawed the use of electronic communications to send messages that are "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character."

Those found guilty of sending such messages can be imprisoned for up to six months and fined, under the Act.

That broad authority is increasingly being used by authorities to clamp down on a wide range of online speech that is deemed offensive to the public or inflammatory. That, despite what many consider a lack of clarity in the law.

Last month, a UK court overturned the verdict of a man who was convicted of violating the country's Communications Act with a 2010 Twitter message that jokingly threatened to blow Nottingham's Robin Hood airport "sky high" if his scheduled flight to Northern Ireland to visit his girlfriend was cancelled due to inclement weather.

Tweet about Robin Hood airport

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!!

The so-called "Twitter Joke" trial attracted attention within Great Britain and internationally. In a ruling on July 27th, The Lord Chief Justice at the Royal Courts of Justice, found that authorities went too far in using the Communications Act to arrest and prosecute 26-year-old Paul Chambers - noting that the definition of the word "menacing" is subjective, and that airport officials' alarm upon reading the message didn't make it menacing.

"The more one reflects on it, the clearer it becomes that this message did not represent a terrorist threat, or indeed any other form of threat. It was posted on "Twitter" for widespread reading, a conversation piece for the appellant’s followers, drawing attention to himself and his predicament," Lord Chief Justice Owens wrote in the decision overturning Chambers' conviction.

The London-based Index On Censorship called the ruling a "victory for free speech" in the wake of the ruling.

However, criminal complaints are only half of the matter.

In 2011, the UK courts attracted criticism for issuing so-called "super injunctions" on behalf of a number of celebrities which can be used to censor and suppress speech that is deemed to violate the privacy rights of the injunction holder.

Footballer Ryan Giggs reportedly obtained such an order from the British High Court demanding the Twitter identities of those users who had published information about his affair with UK reality TV star Imogen Thomas. The move prompted a public protest both inside and outside the UK, with tens of thousands of Twitter users outing Giggs and Thomas.

In a response, online civil rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation warned that the courts were in danger of overbroad censorship that it called the "Streisand effect," in honor of notorious diva Barbara Streisand. The injunctions could prevent the press and public from reporting important information, including court proceedings, the EFF said.

US laws, including the Communications Decency Act and, more important, the First Amendment to the US Constitution, protect the legality of such expressions. Legal experts agree that super injunctions and criminal cases such as those brought against the Weymouth youth would be difficult - if not impossible - to prosecute under US law.

Twitter, an American company, says it can't police the content of the more than 100 million messages that traverse its global network each day. The company also says that tries not to remove tweets solely based on content, and supports the freedom of expression as a basic human right. The micro-blogging network was credited with helping to spread word about popular protests throughout the Middle East during the Arab Spring uprising.

Despite the controversies, the Company has increased its presence in the UK in the last year, opening a London office and signaling in public statements that it may be willing to bend to local authorities in some cases requesting censorship of tweets.

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12 Responses to Free speech advocates say UK is too harsh in policing tweets

  1. Internaut · 771 days ago

    Arrested for sending "arrested after sending a insensitive Twitter message"? How many husband and wive digital arguments, ex-lovers, teen-spite, commentators, and other mundane texts are going to land others in jail, feeding lawyers, and losing their 'equipment'?

    I guess opining that {{insert celebrity name here}} is a real dog, or a wimp, or muscle-brain idiot, is out of the question. Texting that Romney is a '{{insert insult here}}, or what about our esteemed editor, Paul Roberts? Can Twitter go after dear Paul just by whining that it sheds a bad light on Twitters censoring policy?

    There has been a steady erosion of freedom of speech by governments and the Internet has been the co-respondent. In short, one can give their opinion but only if it agrees with a whole list of 'authorities' from a forum or chat room moderator to a bored and over exuberant Homeland Security agent.

    Irk the ire of one, anyone, and a few poorly chosen words can put one in jail feeding the lawyers, and loss of equipment.

    We will learn to be nothing but positive - it is for our own safety. We will learn to be tolerant of anything, or be labeled as a {{insert label here}}phobic. We will learn to be happy, friendly, productive, sociably agreeable to everything.

    We will be assimilated - or else.

    I

    • Richard · 770 days ago

      No! I refuse to bow down and stop criticising people!

      It's "wife", not "wive".
      "Twitter's", not "Twitters".
      And it's not possible to "irk the ire" of anyone.

      There, that's better. Nothing like a good bit of social disobedience to make me happy!

    • Paul Ducklin · 770 days ago

      My suspicion is that both you and Paul Roberts have underplayed the severity of the case of the youngster from Weymouth. Paul calls it merely "insensitive"; you talk about "a few poorly chosen words" - but other news stories paint a rather different picture.

      The Grauniad, for example, suggests that he wasn't arrested for telling Daley he "let his Dad down," but for much more egregious behaviour, notably three Tweets in which he threatened Daley and two other Twitter users with death (and not just in a manner of speaking, but apparently explicitly - one by drowning, one by shooting and one by strangulation).
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/jul/31/teena...

      If the Graun is right, then surely the cops would have been remiss if they _hadn't_ take some sort of action against the sender of such tweets? (It also seems he didn't "land in jail feeding the lawyers" - a phrase you trotted out twice - but instead received a police warning. Not quite the same thing, you'd probably agree.)

      • Chris McKeown · 770 days ago

        I'm unsure as to why the full twitter conversation is not being widely publicised by the media. You really have to look for the actual tweets, rather than relying on almost all news sources that are reporting it. Why is this? Why is the media actively not mentioning this? Is it just sloppy journalism, or has it been edited out on purpose?

    • bankslayer · 770 days ago

      Well said Internaut ... welcome to 1984 perhaps?

  2. LEEPEM · 770 days ago

    ITS A DIFFICULT ONE, ON ONE HAND FREEDOM OF SPEECH IS SO IMPORTANT, EVERYONE IS ENTITLED TO AN OPINION, BUT PEOPLE ARE STUPID TO PUT THINGS INTO PRINT, ESPECIALLY IF IT IS OFFENSIVE/UPSETTING /BULLYING ETC. AS ON THE OTHER HAND PEOPLE SHOULD BE PROTECTED AGAINST BULLYING/STALKING AND THE NEGATIVE IMPACT IT CAN HAVE LEADING TO DEPRESSION/SUICIDAL THOUGHTS AND EVEN ACTING ON THESE THOUGHTS AND TAKING ONES LIFE..SADLY THERE ARE SO MANY MORONS INTHIS WORLD NOW WHO NEVER THINK THINGS THROUGH OR JUST DON'T CARE. WE SHOULD USE COMMON SENSE WHEN TWEETING AND WHEN CONSIDERING PROSECUTION.LEE

  3. Marc · 770 days ago

    How much is free speech worth? Do we continue to allow racist hate sites to thrive on the net? Do we give anyone the right to say anything without redress? Somewhere, someone has to start setting some basic standards for public behaviour and behaviour on sites like Twitter is decidedly public. Will this allow the authorities to go too far? Well that is what courts are for, to decide each case on its merits. Without laws to guide society we rapidly degenerate.

    • Richard · 770 days ago

      It depends. If the racist site is encouraging people to break the law, then that's not acceptable. If they're just voicing their own opinion, then legal action is not justified.

      "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

  4. PeteKu · 770 days ago

    I have always stood split on this but the two examples in this article for me the correct action was taken by the police. Say for example the police had brushed off the mans tweet who said he was going to blow up the airport and left it. If two weeks later he would of carried out his threat. People would of been hauling the police into the dock for having a warning and not acting upon it. They cant win.

    As for the chap who tweeted Tom Daly. Although I agree that yes this incident could of just been brushed off and under the rug, if you actually read some of this vile persons other tweets, he clearly needs locking up for his own safety. Threatening violence and death both males and females as well as tweets aimed at Gary Barlow the person is just hideous and I am surprised twitter still allow him on

  5. American · 722 days ago

    They shoudn't be policing tweets at all! Freedom of speech is a human right that some governments deny their citizens to oppress them. Yes, the UK is one of them. They deny, police, and imprison people for sharing an opinion they have decided to outlaw.

    • jebaosamtimater · 216 days ago

      thats right , they arrest people for voicing hateful opinions on the internet but they allow the islamists to preech hate in the mosques....

  6. Silver Fang · 720 days ago

    It's a quagmire because Twitter is a US-based site, but has presence in many other countries. So which nations' laws apply and when?

    This is why I'm beginning to view the Internet as a global entity, completely sovereign and not accountable to any regional or national laws. Let the Net be a law unto itself.

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About the author

Paul is a Boston-based reporter and industry analyst with more than a decade of experience covering the IT industry, cyber security and hacking. His work has appeared on threatpost.com, The Boston Globe, salon.com, NPR's Marketplace, Fortune Small Business, as well as industry publications including ZDNet, Computerworld, InfoWorld, eWeek, CIO , CSO and ITWorld.com. Paul got his 15 minutes as an expert guest on The Oprah Show - but that's a long story.