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Confusion reigns over UK Internet freedom

Published on
20 Sep 2012
Written by
Professor Ian Brown

The UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions this morning published an extremely sensible statement after deciding not to prosecute Daniel Thomas, the author of a homophobic tweet about Olympic divers Tom Daley and Peter Waterfield:

“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, it was not part of a campaign, it was not intended to incite others and Mr Thomas removed it reasonably swiftly and has expressed remorse. Against that background, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Wales, Jim Brisbane, has concluded that on a full analysis of the context and circumstances in which this single message was sent, it was not so grossly offensive that criminal charges need to be brought.”

This was a positive application of the Human Rights Act and European human rights jurisprudence to a tweet that qualified for the Communications Act 2003 offence of a “grossly offensive” communication sent using a public electronic network. This offence clearly needs reviewing, as the DPP suggests:

“Social media is a new and emerging phenomenon raising difficult issues of principle, which have to be confronted not only by prosecutors but also by others including the police, the courts and service providers. The fact that offensive remarks may not warrant a full criminal prosecution does not necessarily mean that no action should be taken. In my view, the time has come for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media.”

Douwe Korff and I suggested a possible approach in a report for the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights last year.

The message does not seem to have reached the Greater Manchester police, who have this afternoon arrested a man over a Facebook page praising the alleged murderer of two officers. While repellent, is this really their highest priority right now? There are concerns that the police press conference (as well as a statement by the prime minister) may already have prejudiced the forthcoming murder trial.