Social media laws in the UK are to be reviewed in the wake of recent prosecutions.New guidelines for policing social media are to be discussed to avoid a “chilling effect” on free speech, the most senior prosecutor in England and Wales has said.
Director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer QC said that the right to be offensive “has to be protected”- but that there had to be a balance.
His comments came in the wake of two prosecutions for offensive postings.
Matthew Wood was jailed on Monday for posting comments about missing girl April Jones. He was jailed for 12 weeks after he made several “abhorrent” postings about missing five-year-old April Jones on Facebook. Members of the public had reported his comments to the police who arrested the man for his own safety after 50 people went to his home.
The teenager’s 12-week prison sentence was followed by the prosecution of Azhar Ahmed, 20, who was given 240 hours community service after writing an offensive post about dead British soldier which posted that “all soldiers should die and go to hell” on Facebook. He said he did not think that the message was offensive.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will invite lawyers and academics, as well as representatives from social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter, to be part of the discussions.
The new measures are expected to be announced before Christmas.
A freedom of information request revealed that there were 2,347 investigations after complaints regarding posts on social media in 2010. This number rose to 2,490 in 2011 – about 50 different cases across the UK each week.
Mr Starmer said prosecutors were finding it difficult to work within the existing law.
“The emerging thinking is that it might be sensible to divide and separate cases where there’s a campaign of harassment, or cases where there’s a credible and general threat, and prosecute in those sorts of cases and put in another category communications which are, as it were, merely offensive or grossly offensive.”
Mr Starmer said the new guidelines would enable relevant authorities to use remedies other than criminal prosecution to address instances of offensive activity.
“The threshold for prosecution has to be high,” he added. “We live in a democracy, and if free speech is to be protected there has to be a high threshold. People have the right to be offensive, they have the right to be insulting, and that has to be protected.”