Friday 6 February 2015

Nut Meets Sledgehammer

Last month, a 19-year-old resident of Sunderland was cautioned by the police for making an offensive remark on Twitter. How can this possibly be an intelligent use of government power?

On 22 December, a bin lorry crashed into a crowd of shoppers in Glasgow, tragically killing six people. Ross Loraine allegedly tweeted:

So a bin lorry has crashed into 100 people in Glasgow eh, probably the most trash its ever picked up in one day that.

This was a cruel, stupid, juvenile statement. Twitter being what it is, I'm sure Loraine received a deluge of replies telling him as much.

However, it doesn't rise (or sink) to the level of hate speech or incitement to violence. His tweet will not motivate anyone to commit acts of violence against Glaswegians.

The BBC thought the content of the tweet was too shocking to reveal to the delicate eyes of its readers. The Glasgow-based Herald newspaper was more robust, and reproduced the tweet in full. The latter is absolutely the right decision; it allows us to see how pathetic Loraine is, and mock him for it as we see fit.

Scene of the crash in Glasgow. Source: BBC News

The police were applying the law as it stands. They cautioned Loraine for making a "malicious communication", presumably a reference to the Malicious Communications Act 1988:

Any person who sends to another person a letter, electronic communication or article of any description which conveys a message which is indecent or grossly offensive [...] is guilty of an offence if his purpose, or one of his purposes, in sending it is that it should, so far as falling within paragraph (a) or (b) above, cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or to any other person to whom he intends that it or its contents or nature should be communicated.  [Emphasis mine]
At least the police stopped at a caution. In theory, there could have been a criminal prosecution and a six month prison sentence for Loraine.

Here we have a law written when the Internet barely existed and Twitter was eighteen years in the future, apparently targeted at threatening letters in the post. At the time, electronic communications were almost an afterthought. Even then, this law was so broadly defined it was asking for trouble.

I am not a lawyer, but "grossly offensive" and "causes distress" seem like criteria far too easy to meet. They may well have been satisfied in this case, but that is not sufficient reason to make it a police matter. That is a waste of money and police time, and it is deploying the power of the state against something better dealt with by normal social interaction -- which is to say, other people telling Loraine not to be an ignorant lout.

Twitter and other social media are something new in human experience. On the one hand, tweets usually have a small audience and are swiftly forgotten, like speech in a pub. On the other, they have the potential to be seen by a much wider audience, and to persist online indefinitely. In this way, they are more like a printed newspaper article.

A pragmatic, mature society would understand that old laws are not fit for purpose and update them for the new world of the Internet. Instead, we appear to be marching backwards, as our government, media and technology companies panic over the idea that terrorists might use the Internet to communicate, and propose absurd non-solutions like banning encryption.

Loraine is a pillock and he deserves the public shaming he has received. At the same time, cases like this are a warning that protection for free speech in our society is far from healthy. Among other things, freedom of speech must include the freedom to make an idiot of yourself in public.

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