Thursday, 7 February 2013

Harassment, social media, and how the law is coping

As I have mentioned before, I am eagerly awaiting the publication of the next issue of LegalIncite in order to, amongst other things, find out whether my article Hashtags and Timelines: New Challenges for Legislators (working title) has been published.

Briefly my article addresses two issues: how courts and legislators seem to constantly find themselves at odds with new technology such as Twitter and Facebook, and how UK laws may not be adequate to the new legal challenges presented to us by the abuse of social media and new technologies.

In my article I briefly address the following cases:

  • Liam Stacey of Swansea was jailed for 56 days having been found guilty of an offence under s4A of the Public Order Act 1986 after tweeting racially aggravated abuse of footballer Fabrice Muamba[i]
  • Facebook user Mitchell Stancombe was charged and sentenced to 3 years in jail following an offence under s.44 of the Serious Crime Act 2007 when he posted “When are we going to start the Southampton riots then?” on his Timeline[ii]
  • Another Facebook user, Matthew Woods, was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail for offences under s127 when he posted “jokes” about missing 5-year-old April Jones [iii]

This is an area that I find quite interesting and so I keep an eye on the development of these cases, and of similar cases, and commentary on similar issues. I am also interested in observing the development of similar cases elsewhere in the world and this article caught my eye today:

It's interesting to see how differently America treat Twitter/Facebook and free speech. Perhaps that is a direct product of having a written constitution and clearly enforceable inalienable rights to which citizens feel a close personal connection. This post was on the Above the Law blog from which I quote:

I’m all for holding people accountable for their racist behavior.
But I also love children. I love allowing children to behave like children — nasty, violent children. Adults can be expected to behave with appropriate decorum, but you have to cut kids a little slack.
Liam Stacey and Mitchell Stancombe were both 21 at the time of their offences, and Matthew Woods was 19, but we can still wonder whether the sentences are proportionate and consistent with the offence, and each other.

Many similar cases can be found with a quick online search and trolls are not a new phenomenon. Certainly harassment and racism are not new either, and there are several US tumblr collations of quite explicit Twitter racism and violence at a level which seems quite different to that in the UK so far, or at least, these cases have not reached UK courts or been given media coverage, even before the publication of the interim guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. It would be interesting to see how the CPS would handle these cases, and the direction the courts would take.

For now, I will keep an eye on the development of a few cases and perhaps write more if the developments are interesting.

[ii] Facebook “timelines” (also called “walls”, or “profiles”) are where user content such as statuses, links, and photos are shared for friends to see.
[iii] - Blog

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