The legislation that governs the use of social media is “generally appropriate”, or so says a report from the House of Lords Communications Committee. This is despite the legislation being passed, almost without exception, before social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter were launched.
In its report the Committee found that social media law was “generally appropriate for the prosecution of offenses committed using the social media“. Yet with a host of cases that many believe should have never even led to arrest never mind to court, we find it concerning that this conclusion has been reached. As it stands, laws that now govern the use of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, such as the Malicious Communications Act 1988, were drafted with the intention of combating traditional communications, like threatening phone calls.
As a result, it would be unreasonable to expect the Parliamentarians of the day to have thought about how the internet could change the nature of communications irrevocably. Indeed, during one of the evidence sessions, the situation was likened to “when a cruise liner all of a sudden needs to become a troop-carrying ship” in a time of war.
Equally worrying is the Committee’s opinion that there was no need to “remove [the] overlaps” that exist within social media legislation. This is despite the Committee being told, by John Cooper QC that in some cases there was a problem of legislation “coming at us from all angles”.
This system of overlapping and intertwined legislation can lead to confusion amongst all interested parties: the public, police and prosecutors. This is a situation that cannot continue if people are to feel that they are being properly protected from both over-zealous and misguided prosecutions.
In an attempt to deal with the problem of disproportionate arrests, the Crown Prosecution Service published guidelines in 2013 in order to clarify much of the procedure. However cases, such as the prosecution of Jordan Barrack, highlight that individuals are still being sanctioned for what could be deemed to be very minor offences. At the time of the guidance’s publication, Big Brother Watch warned that this alone would not be enough to rectify the situation and that real reform was necessary. Yet, despite this, the Lords report has found them to be both “proportionate and appropriate”.
By ignoring these issues the Committee has missed an opportunity to highlight the very real need for change. Out-dated and confusing legislation should be re-drafted or repealed as a matter of urgency and, until this happens, cases of unnecessary and costly prosecutions will continue to occur.
Big Brother Watch is in the process of organising a campaign around social media prosecutions. Make sure you watch this space for further details.