I was quoted very briefly in the Mail on Sunday this weekend, in an article about a new police strategy for cracking down on Twitter abuse and threats.
It is feared that this will lead to large numbers of comments being reported to social media providers or police as inappropriate, even if they were only meant jokingly or had no malicious intent. Robert Sharp, of the anti-censorship group English PEN, said: ‘Threats of violence must of course be investigated and prosecuted, but the police need to tread carefully.’
The peril exists because the law needs to be modernised. The legislation governing online discourse was enacted well before Facebook, Twitter and their rivals were invented, and laws created in the age of the fax machine are often be mis-applied to social media.
In particular, Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 conflates threats with messages that are merely ‘offensive’. This injects a huge amount of subjectivity into the process, and can turn the law into an ideological battleground where people report views they find objectionable. At the very least, there needs to be a rigorous training programme in place to ensure that officers and volunteers can tell the difference.