The issue of prosecutions based on postings to social networks has been getting bigger and bigger over recent months, with several high-profile cases being reported and discussed in the mainstream media. Spontaneous remarks intended to be humorous and only viewed be a select group of individuals have in fact been found to breach certain parts of The Communications Act 2003 in the UK, and in some cases have seen the individuals behind those remarks convicted of a criminal offence.
However, Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, has issued a lengthy statement detailing the problems faced by all parties: those who use social networks to voice an opinion, those who might be offended by such an opinion, and those responsible for enforcing the laws pertaining to the expression of such opinions and the effect they have on others. If you have the time, I’d highly recommend reading his statement, which can be found online at The Telegraph. He acknowledges the right to freedom of speech, referencing an observation by the ECHR in 1976, that says the right to freedom of expression includes the right to say things or express opinions “…that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population”.
But he also addresses the fact that, in his own words:
“the CPS has the task of balancing the fundamental right of free speech and the need to prosecute serious wrongdoing on a case by case basis. That often involves very difficult judgment calls… In some cases it is clear that a criminal prosecution is the appropriate response to conduct which is complained about, for example where there is a sustained campaign of harassment of an individual… or where grossly offensive or threatening remarks are made and maintained.”
There will also be a set of guidelines drawn up following wide public consultation, as well as input from campaigners, media lawyers, academics, social media experts and law enforcement bodies. However, there was one point he made in his statement that I’d like to reiterate:
“Communications intended for a few may reach millions.”
I’m no longer discussing potentially offensive messages or something that might breach The Communications Act, but communication at large. Think for a moment about what would happen if confidential information that could jeopardise your business prior to a merger or a big deal were to accidentally be exposed to competitors or others who you’d prefer weren’t privy to such knowledge. It could be a very problematic situation indeed.
Even for the overwhelming majority of us who use social media in a respectful, legal manner, the issues addressed by Keir Starmer QC’s statement should still apply to us. Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the way we communicate in an increasingly digital world, and think about the potential implications that arise from the manner in which we choose to share information online.