Parliament should consider issuing new laws for policing content on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, according to Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Keir Starmer. As more and more cases of social media abuse come to light, with seemingly different criteria applied to each decision, the DPP has said that existing legislation – created prior to the advent of the internet, and designed to control behaviour in phone use and public places – is not fit to deal with modern communications.
Starmer is currently engaged in a consultation to clarify the law as it stands, and suggest any new legislation that may be required. The study follows a number of recent cases that have triggered debates on free speech and the right to offend. Among them are Paul Chambers’ infamous Twitter “threat” to blow up an airport – a humourous outburst that earned him a conviction for sending a “menacing message”, although this was overturned on appeal. In addition there is the case of Matthew Woods, jailed for making comments on his own Facebook page about missing Welsh girl April Jones.
While the latter comment was clearly more offensive, legal experts have debated whether it was any further in violation of the relevant laws than Chambers’ remark. As such, the DPP report is expected to concentrate on more clearly defining what is meant by “grossly offensive”: if police continue to respond to public outrage by way of guidance, they run the risk of simply reacting to mob rule, rather than working in accordance with set criteria.
One recommendation likely to arise from Starmer’s consultation is that social network managers should police their own sites more effectively. Platforms such as eBay already outlaw the sale of certain goods, so it would not seem impossible for Facebook or Twitter to do likewise for certain types of posts – despite their volume.