It all started in 2010 when a man was found guilty of sending a menacing tweet threatening he was going to blow up Robin Hood Airport. Two years later, thankfully, he was found innocent. The case was the beginning of walking a fine line between what messages on social networks are jokes and which others could be regarded as genuine threats.
The case also raised real concerns over how the transparency of the internet could be threatened by those peering in and not fully understanding the context behind communications. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has now dealt with over 50 cases relating to potential criminal messages posted online. Although how many of these were merely dark jokes and how many others were genuine prosecutable acts? It’s impossible to tell.
Well, fear no more. Today, drunk Twitter and Facebook users who post grossly offensive messages will now be let off the hook if they proudly apologise and delete the offensive messages once they have sobered up. Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, has been doing the media rounds today has said,
“If a message is taken down very swiftly and there is remorse then it may not be proportionate to have a criminal prosecution. It is not a defence that you have sobered up but it is relevant that whatever the material was, it was taken down pretty quickly when the person realised it was inappropriate.”
To help prosecutors the CPS has developed four initial assessment case guidelines. These should hopefully cease repeat cases, such as the Robin Hood Airport incident. The initial assessment is,
1) Communications which may constitute credible threats of violence
2) Communications which may constitute harassment or stalking
3) Communications which may amount to a breach of a court order
4) Communications which do not fall into any of the above categories and fall to be considered separately i.e. those which may be considered grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false.
Any offenses falling within the first three categories will see individuals prosecuted under relevant legislations. Any caught with their pants down holding a big point four will see, probably, no prosecution at all.
Exactly how the CPS decide to measure this, let alone understand if a user was actually drunk at the time of posting an offensive message is beyond me. For a start, who decides if an online message is offensive or not? Distinguishing between a joke, satirical view or controversial opinion isn’t always easy.
Mr Starmer may has well just have been honest and have said, “We have no idea what all this social networking business is. So we have decided to make up some silly guidelines that will help make our case workload a little bit more manageable”.
However, without wishing to seem callous, the matter of offensive online messages is an important one. Often labelled as ‘trolling’, it can devastate people’s lives and should be dealt with harshly.
What do you think of the CPS guidelines? Are they fit for purpose?